GOP write-in candidates face steep challenges in Corp Comm campaign




Corporation Commission
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Two Republicans have filed to run as write-in candidates for the Arizona Corporation Commission, but face a difficult path as they seek to ensure that the GOP doesn’t concede a seat on the powerful regulatory body to the Democrats.

The Arizona Supreme Court last week ruled that candidate Kim Owens didn’t have enough valid signatures to appear on the ballot for the Aug. 4 primary election. Owens was one of four Republican candidates kept off the ballot due to lawsuits that challenged their nominating petitions, leaving the GOP with only two candidates for three seats that are up for election in November. 

Democrats were already hopeful they could win a seat, or possibly even two, which would give them control of the five-member commission. If the GOP can’t get a third candidate on the ballot for the general election, the Democrats would be assured at least one pickup.

Jim O’Connor, who narrowly lost in the Repbulican primary in the 2018 Corporation Commission race, is hoping to be the third Republican on the ballot in November. Commissioner Justin Olson and Nick Myers, who was one of the Republicans knocked off the ballot this year, recruited him into the race.

As an experienced former candidate who ran a tough race – he finished third in a race for two seats, earning 207,000 votes but losing by about 11,000 – O’Connor said he’s well suited to run as a write-in. 

“I was very happy to sit this one out. But if they need somebody, I think I’m probably the best suited in recent recollection for the spot. They more or less drafted me,” he told Arizona Mirror.

O’Connor isn’t alone in seeking the third slot on the Republican ticket.

Roger Pencek, a commercial real estate broker, has also filed to run as a write-in. Pencek is a newcomer who’s never been involved in Arizona politics. His only connection to the political world is a brother-in-law who ran unsuccessfully for the legislature in 2002.

After 40 years of running his own company, Acquisitions, Businesses & Investments LLC, Pencek is retiring in August and said he’s been looking for a way to contribute to the betterment of Arizona. Pencek told the Mirror he felt compelled to run as a write-in after reading an article about how the Supreme Court’s ruling on Owens left the party without enough candidates. 

“I’m going to be that neophyte that’s going to come in with a clean slate and be unbiased,” Pencek said.

Pencek said he’s interviewing political consultants for his campaign and will run with Clean Elections funding.

O’Connor, Pencek and any other Republicans who run write-in campaigns will have a difficult task ahead of them if they hope to get their names on the ballot for the general election in November.

Write-in candidates can’t get their names on the general election ballot unless they get a minimum number of votes in the primary. That figure is based on the number of signatures candidates need to qualify for the primary election ballot in the first place.

For statewide races in 2020, Republican candidates needed 6,663 signatures to qualify for the primary election ballot, meaning any GOP write-in hopeful will need at least that many votes to get his or her name on the ballot in November. 

For a candidate to get that many write-in votes will require an intensive effort, likely with major assistance from the Arizona Republican Party and possibly county party organizations as well, said Constantin Querard, a GOP campaign consultant. Write-in candidates and anyone helping them will have to reach out to party loyalists, activists and high-propensity voters, make sure they know who to write in and get them to spread the word among their families and friends.

State parties are generally supposed to stay neutral in contested primaries, which could put the AZGOP in an awkward position if it’s forced to choose between taking sides in an intra-party contest and refusing to help in a situation where failure will guarantee a Democratic win in November.

“The trick actually is to get them to agree on one person. If you end up with multiple candidates that all decide they’re going to run as write-ins, it can be difficult for the parties to put their energy behind one of them without taking sides in a primary in a way that upsets people,” Querard said. “They need to find the first good person who’s willing to put in the time and effort and vet them quickly and then back them.”

George Khalaf, another GOP campaign consultant, said the Arizona Republican Party will have a major role to play, and must get the word out to party die-hards and precinct committeemen. And it helps if the candidate has decent name identification, and a short, simple name that’s easy to spell.

“It’s going to take a lot of communicating,” Khalaf said.

The other serious challenge facing the write-in candidates is fundraising.

Recent Corporation Commission rules make it extremely difficult for candidates to raise money from people who have business before the commission, which primarily regulates utilities. Commissioners must recuse themselves from voting on matters related to anyone who’s contributed to their campaigns. That means people with ties to regulated utilities are unlikely to contribute to any commission candidate. 

Because of the inherent difficulties in raising money for Corporation Commission races, most candidates choose to run with public funding through Arizona’s Clean Elections system. The three Democrats and two Republicans who have qualified for the ballot are all running with public funding.

Statewide candidates must collect 1,500 $5 contributions from voters to qualify for funding. They receive about $116,000 for the primary and then another $174,000 for the general election if they win their party’s nomination.

Qualifying for Clean Elections funding is a challenge under normal circumstances. And write-in candidates are not facing normal circumstances.

First, they’ll have only about two and a half months to collect their qualifying contributions. None of the five candidates whose names will appear on the ballot have yet qualified for their Clean Elections funding, though candidates can collect their qualifying contributions online and some began collecting them in August 2019, when the qualifying period began.

Second, write-in candidates aren’t even eligible to receive Clean Elections funding unless they get enough votes in the primary to get onto the general election ballot. So, the only funding available to them during the primary, when they must convince several thousand voters to write in their names, is the $29,000 in seed money they’re allowed to collect under public financing rules.

Khalaf questioned whether a Clean Elections candidate will have the financial resources to get the job done, and said the ideal candidate would be someone wealthy who can self-fund a campaign.

O’Connor said he expects the Arizona Republican Party to aid his campaign. And he’s hoping to run as a team with the two Republicans who have qualified for the primary ballot, Commissioner Lea Marquez Peterson, who’s seeking re-election, and Eric Sloan. O’Connor said he, Peterson and Sloan can help each other collect their qualifying contributions for Clean Elections funding. 

But Peterson and Sloan aren’t committing to anything yet. 

She said it would be great if the party could unify behind a single write-in candidate, and someone who’s run before or has good name recognition would be ideal. But she’s not ready to align herself with O’Connor until she knows who will be in the race.

“It would be good to have the Republican candidates run as a slate and do what we can to promote one another. But I’m going to wait and see who else files. I’ve heard a lot of different names,” Peterson said.

Sloan noted that there could be more candidates, and is hesitant to take sides in a contested write-in primary.

“It sounds like we’ve got a primary. It sounds like there’s a write-in primary. I’ve never heard of such a thing, but here we are,” he said.

Zachery Henry, a spokesman for the AZGOP, said the party hasn’t had any direct conversations with O’Connor about supporting his campaign.