A freshman southern Arizona lawmaker is leading the effort to strip Arizona voters of the right to nominate U.S. senators.
The proposal by Rep. David Stevens, R-Sierra Vista, would give that right to the elected legislators from each party. Only after that process is complete would voters get a say, in the general election, who they actually want to send to Washington.
Stevens said his measure, if approved by Arizona voters in November, would be a partial return to the way things were before the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted.
Until then, each state legislature actually got to choose its U.S. senators, with voters allowed to pick only the folks going to the House of Representatives. The 1913 amendment requires direct election of all members of Congress.
Stevens said that amendment was a mistake. He said the old system ensured that senators were responsive to the desires of state lawmakers.
"The state is supreme over the federal government," he said. "And when they weren't doing what we thought they should be doing, we could recall them at any time."
With direct election, Stevens said, federal senators are less interested in protecting the rights of the states and more interested in looking out for the powers of the federal government.
"It takes away the ability of the state to negotiate with the federal government," he said.
Unable to repeal the 17th Amendment, Stevens is trying the next best thing: changing the nominating process.
He said HCR 2046 would not run afoul of the U.S. Constitution because it does preserve the direct election of senators as required. He said nothing in that amendment spells out the nominating process for those candidates, which is what he wants to change.
Because his plan requires voter approval, nothing in his measure would affect this year's Republican primary battle involving incumbent John McCain and challengers J.D. Hayworth and Chris Simcox.
Stevens said, though, there might be an entirely different political landscape if McCain, Hayworth and Simcox were busy battling for the support of the 35 House Republicans and 18 GOP senators rather than seeing who can corral more popular votes at the primary in August.
In fact, he said it is possible that someone like Hayworth, whose campaign warchest is going to be dwarfed by McCain, actually might have a better chance of becoming the party's nominee.
"He would have to come down and, basically, campaign us," Stevens said.
Stevens said he believes he can sell voters on the idea of giving up their right to nominate their U.S. senators.
"I'll ask them if they feel like they're being served by their senators," Stevens said. "And I can pretty much tell you what their answer is going to be. That is 'no,'" though, he said he's not just talking about Arizona but the situation nationwide.
The plan will get no backing from McCain.
"Senator McCain believes all elections, primary and general, should be decided by the people, as stated in the Constitution," said aide Brooke Buchanan.
Hayworth said he is sympathetic to what Stevens is trying to do.
"I believe in states' rights," he said. But Hayworth said he can't support this specific measure.
"Right now I just think it's important for the people to decide" their Arizona senators.
And Simcox said he's not sure if such a change would make the process better.
On one hand, he said the measure might help candidates like himself who he contends are more committed to the principles of the party and less to being loyal to those who control the party structure. But Simcox said he also can foresee a way that this system also can be co-opted by the party leadership.
The measure does have an escape clause for recognized parties that don't happen to have any members in the Arizona Legislature: Their U.S. Senate nominees would continue to be chosen the way they are now through a primary race.
Stevens said even if he gets his wish and the nominating process is changed, it still might be difficult for Arizona lawmakers to keep their federal senators' feet to the fire. That goes back to the 17th Amendment and that federal requirement for direct election.
"Once they get elected to their six years, we (legislators) don't have the ability to call them back," Stevens said.