The format wasn’t the most contentious: scripted questions sent in advance to the District 18 Senate primary candidates, with no room for debate, cheers or boos.
Yet, one of the District 18 Senate primary candidates did not attend a forum Tuesday due to a prior commitment, organizers of a local faith-based organization said.
Earlier Tuesday, Russell Pearce, who’s up against Kevin Gibbons in the Republican primary, said he could have rearranged his schedule if organizers had made this “an open, honest, roundtable forum,” by inviting the four other District 18 Republican candidates running for the State Representative seats.
But by making it a Gibbons-Pearce affair, Pearce believed the event was going to be “a beat-up Russell Pearce forum,” he said.
That’s because Valley Interfaith is known to advocate against Pearce’s legislative actions dealing with toughening illegal immigration.
“This group has an agenda against employer sanctions law or any law enforcement,” Pearce said.
Pearce also didn’t like the idea that the forum was mainly for group members to listen to the candidates’ views on issues of concern to them.
“It’s not open to the public and there’s no question where this group stands,” Pearce added.
The faith-based group, which favors comprehensive immigration reform, rallied about 100 members at Tuesday’s meeting.
This isn’t the first time one of the two candidates has been a no-show at a similar event in the run-up to the charged Sept. 2 primary.
Notably, Gibbons did not attend a Republican District Precinct Committee debate back in June.
Gibbons, who’s still fuming over the Maricopa County Republican Committee’s endorsement of his opponent, said attending that event would have been pointless.
“Why would I speak at a debate where these precinct committeemen, friends of Russell, had already chosen him?” he said.
For Tuesday’s event, the candidates had been informed in advance that the immigration issue would not be touched.
Dick White, Valley Interfaith’s board president, denied Pearce’s allegations. He said the forum’s format was such that there was no room for any “moments of discord.
“We’re really disappointed,” White said after the event. White still hopes to hear back from Pearce on where he stands on the group’s concerns, including assuring higher wages for teachers, maintaining financial assistance to family caregivers, and continuing the state Medicaid program.
Debate or not, a majority of District 18 Republican voters favor Pearce in his quest to grab the state Senate seat, according to an Arizona Opinion poll also released Tuesday. Fifty-one percent of registered voters surveyed in the Mesa district said they would vote for Pearce, 13.3 percent favored Gibbons, 4.8 percent wouldn’t vote for either candidate and 31 percent were either undecided or did not answer.
The poll, conducted Friday, Aug 8 and Saturday, Aug. 9, involved 400 registered voters. The margin of error is 4.8 percent.
Poll director Margaret Kenski, who runs the Tucson research firm that conducted the poll, said the results show that while Pearce may be controversial he has high name recognition.
Kenski added that the recent attacks on Pearce by independent expenditure committees seem to have “backfired.”
“That helped raise the profile of the race, but an attack like that caused an uproar, in my view,” she said.
The District 18 Republican primary has made headlines in recent weeks because several independent groups have been sending out mailers including one that questioned Pearce’s character stemming from a 1980 divorce petition in which his wife said she was physically attacked by Pearce. His wife has recently said those statements were not true and the two remain married.
Political consultant and former East Valley legislator Stan Barnes commissioned the poll. He chairs the newly formed independent expenditure committee, Mesa Voters for Positive Campaigns.
Barnes said he wanted to counter the recent attacks on Pearce with some empirical data to show what voters think of the two candidates.
“The poll is remarkable for the lopsided support for Representative Pearce in the midst of this horrible negative campaign that is being run against him,” said Barnes, president of Copper State Consulting Group. “It’s nice to see that character assassination of the type being leveled at him is not working.”
The poll was conducted right after the first mailer about the divorce petition was sent, but before another one on Pearce’s alleged neo-Nazi ties. That mailer criticized Pearce for distributing through e-mail an article from the white supremacist group.
Nathan Sproul, chair of Mesa Deserves Better, which has targeted Pearce, said he believes the poll numbers are credible. But Sproul questioned the reasoning that the numbers show the mailers in fact ended up favoring Pearce. That’s because, Sproul noted that based on the mailing schedule, it was highly unlikely that most voters would have even received the first mailer, and “definitely not the second mailer,” at the time the poll was conducted.
The committee has no intention of stopping its anti-Russell message any time soon.
“This is going to be a robust campaign over the next three or four weeks,” Sproul said.
Three independent groups against Pearce reported funds totaling almost $18,000 spent so far during this campaign.
Gibbons says he isn’t worried about the poll results, although he was surprised by the numbers.
“Fifty-one percent shows my message is still getting out and that this is just the beginning,” he said. “That’s a favorable poll for me because he should be in the high 80s, with his kind of name recognition.”
But that’s about all the leeway Gibbons is willing to give.
“Otherwise, I’ll stack up my record against his any day,” Gibbons said.
He also said his campaign would focus on the 31 percent of voters who said they were undecided between now and the Sept. 2 primary.
“Our message resonates better with them because they’re looking for a change,” Gibbons said.
Kenski noted that undecided votes usually tend to split in the same proportion as the people willing to declare their vote.
But she said there are always exceptions if circumstances change.
“If something happens between now and the election and it discredited one of these people, it could change,” Kenski said.
Pearce was glad to hear the results, even though he said he’s “not too comfortable about polls in general.
“Still, hopefully they’re an indicator of what we can expect from the primary results,” Pearce said. “The people in the district know me and I’m grateful that they’re seeing through these personal attacks on my integrity.”