Frustrated AZ Republicans adapt to life as a political minority on Capitol Hill

By: - August 2, 2019 1:25 pm

Image by Bjoertvedt | Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

WASHINGTON – Life in the U.S. House minority is no fun. 

That, at least, is the view of Rep. David Schweikert, one of four Arizona Republicans in the lower chamber of the U.S. Congress.

“It’s intensely frustrating,” he recently told the Arizona Mirror.

A half-year after the GOP lost control of the House, Schweikert and the three other Republicans in Arizona’s congressional delegation have lost the power and influence that come with majority control – perks their party enjoyed for the past eight years.

“It’s obviously harder when you’re in the minority to get bills passed,” said Rep. Debbie Lesko, a second-term Republican from the 8th District. “We’re more in defense mode.”

Schweikert, a six-term Republican from Fountain Hills, lost his majority seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Now a minority member on that committee – and in the House – he says he sometimes has trouble accessing even basic resources, like answers to constituent questions.

His GOP colleagues, who also represent the suburbs around Phoenix and some rural areas, are in the same boat. Some of them even lost their gavels when the House flipped. 

Rep. Paul Gosar, a five-term Republican from Prescott, lost his chairmanship of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources. Rep. Andy Biggs, a two-term Republican from Gilbert, lost his chairmanship of the House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Environment. 

Arizona Republicans have also seen a power shift within the delegation: They now hold four of the state’s nine House seats, down from five last term. 

And they saw a huge loss of seniority in the Senate this past year, with the death of Republican Sen. John McCain and the retirements of GOP Sens. Jon Kyl and Jeff Flake.  

The average tenure for a member of the delegation is now about five years, down from nine years in the last Congress, according to data compiled by AZ Big Media

The power shift reflects a changing political climate. 

Once deep red, the Grand Canyon State is now regarded as competitive, especially in light of Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s statewide victory last year. 

The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter, rates the state a toss-up in the 2020 presidential election. And Democrats believe they have a shot at winning Schweikert’s seat, which would tilt the congressional delegation further to the left. 

Schweikert has mostly cruised to re-election since he first won in 2010, but Felecia Rotellini, chairwoman of the Arizona Democratic Party, says next year will be different. 

That’s in part because Schweikert is the subject of an ethics investigation into allegations that he used his congressional office funds for campaign purposes and that he did not properly disclose campaign finance information. “We believe we have a very strong case for electing a Democrat” in the 6th District, she told the Mirror

Working with – and against – Democrats

Though less able to enact their legislative agenda and attract media attention, Gina Woodall, a lecturer in politics at Arizona State University, cautions that Arizona Republicans aren’t exactly irrelevant.

They connect with constituents through social media, press releases and other avenues, where they often double down on President Trump’s messaging. 

They meet monthly at a bipartisan breakfast, a tradition that Lesko recently revived. And their aides call each other to gather support for legislation of interest or joint letters. 

And they see each other on the House floor, at the airport and at meetings for issue-based groups. All four serve in the conservative Freedom Caucus and the Congressional Western Caucus. Gosar, Schweikert and Biggs hold leadership positions in the Western Caucus. 

But they also find other paths to power – either by working against Democrats or by working with them. 

We now have a “very different role,” Lesko said. “We’re opposed to a lot of these very liberal bills that are being pushed through the House of Representatives.” 

At the same time, though, “there is still a place to work on some bipartisan legislation,” she said. She cites work she has done with Democrats to move legislation that would ease airport security screening for pregnant women and families with young children, and to require advance notice before F-35 squadrons are transferred.

Schweikert agreed. Some issues of interest to the state don’t break along traditional partisan lines – such as those that relate to water, rural lands, and transportation – which makes it easier to reach consensus and advance legislation, he said. For example, he introduced an animal welfare bill with Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Tucson and leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

And Schweikert said he’s leveraging relationships he has built over the years to advance health care technology legislation and other issues. 

The key is “not being a jerk to people, even when you have a disagreement,” he said.

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