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Big party money hasn't yet flowed to tight AZ congressional races. Why?

On paper, Arizona has at least two of the more compelling pick-up opportunities in the U.S. House of Representatives this year.

But as the congressional campaigns passed Labor Day, the parties and their allies had only begun to invest in shaping the tone and stakes for what voters must settle on Nov. 3.

National Democrats had spent $478,000 in the race to hold onto the 1st Congressional District seat held by Rep. Tom O'Halleran, D-Ariz. Neither of the national party's House campaign arms had spent on the 6th Congressional District seat held by Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz.

The GOP has begun spending at least $100,000 to help O'Halleran's Republican opponent, Tiffany Shedd. Meanwhile, Democrats have nearly $3 million reserved for Phoenix TV stations that could be used to boost either O'Halleran or Schweikert's Democratic opponent, Hiral Tipirneni. 

Even though Arizona's primary was moved up by three weeks this year compared to 2018, outside groups so far have spent less than they did in the comparable period up to Labor Day. 

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In the Scottsdale-based 6th District, Schweikert is wounded with a rare reprimand and fine from the House over 11 ethics rules violations. And he faces Tipirneni, one of the best-funded challengers in the country, with comparatively little cash of his own.

In the 1st District that spans northeastern Arizona, O’Halleran is one of the few in the House whose district voted for a Democrat and for President Donald Trump in 2016. 

Other House races, notably in South Carolina, New York and even New Mexico, have garnered more financial interest from outside groups than Arizona’s races since Aug. 1, according to an Arizona Republic analysis of spending figures from the Federal Election Commission.

While the lull has lasted longer than it did two years ago, it will soon shift, at least for Democrats.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic-aligned House Majority political-action committee have reserved $2.9 million worth of TV ads in the Phoenix market, though it's unclear for now how much any single race will get.

Last month the GOP-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund unveiled $45 million of TV reservations for the fall and didn't include Phoenix on its list. Last week, the CLF noted districts where it was deploying people or working to boost turnout. Again, Phoenix wasn't on its list.

Chris Baker, a Schweikert campaign consultant, said he was not worried by the spending patterns.

"We remain very confident that Congressman Schweikert will prevail on Election Day. We are very pleased with our fundraising over the last few months," he said. "The polling looks extremely positive for us, and we see the Trump campaign and the larger Republican Party effort on voter turnout to be very successful right now." 

A Tipirneni campaign spokeswoman declined to comment.

Josh Daniels, a spokesman for the Shedd campaign, welcomed the NRCC's aid.

"The NRCC's investment will help us share the facts of Tom O'Halleran's liberal record opposing tax cuts for Arizona families while voting for tax cuts for California millionaires, compared to Tiffany's background as a small business owner who has created jobs and will work with President Trump to rebuild our economy," he said. 

Sarah Guggenheimer, a DCCC spokeswoman, expressed confidence in both O'Halleran and Tipirneni, but stopped short of committing on spending money on either race.

"With a cash-on-hand advantage in this sprawling district, O’Halleran is well-positioned to continue his work setting aside partisanship to go to work for Arizonans," she said of his race. 

"Hiral’s energetic and aggressive campaign more than stands up against Schweikert’s underfunded and tired operation," she said of Schweikert's race, which she said begins with a "black mark" for his reprimand.

Lorna Romero, the 2016 campaign spokeswoman for the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and a former staffer to former Gov. Jan Brewer, said the Republicans have a chance in O'Halleran's purple district and Democrats have one in Schweikert's red one.

Specifically for the 1st District, "that's always an opportunity for Republicans, but it always depends on the type of candidate. I think what we have this election cycle is a pretty strong candidate," Romero said. "It's not a walk in the park any cycle for a Democrat up there."

"You have the opposite in (the 6th District), where Schweikert has never really had a competitive general election. ... He's never really had to fundraise," Romero said. "Had the (ethics) news come out earlier, Republicans probably would have considered introducing a different candidate. Plus he's in a district where Trump isn't as popular as he was four years ago."  

Andy Barr, a Democratic consultant, said both sides are now entering the period to push to compete if they intend to do so.

"In Arizona, because there is such a heavy early vote in any year — and this year it’s going to be bigger — if they’re not spending within the next week to 10 days, they’re ceding the opportunity," he said.

Barr said Tipirneni's fate seems tied to Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. If he does very well, she could win. "Outside of that, the map is pretty tough for her," Barr said.

For the moment, Arizona’s races are largely unfolding as the candidates can afford to frame them. 

In both cases, the Democratic candidates have a clear financial advantage, and O’Halleran is a two-term incumbent. 

As of mid-July, Tipirneni had $1.3 million in cash available for her campaign. Schweikert had $230,000. 

O'Halleran had $1.4 million in cash, while Shedd had $215,000.

Spending that will unfold over the next few weeks will make clearer whether party leaders in Washington or their political allies outside the party’s operations believe they can make a difference.

As of Friday, the DCCC had spent $478,000 in Arizona races since Aug. 1. All of that was used to attack Shedd.

The National Republican Congressional Committee only began spending in the 1st District race on Thursday. 

An NRCC spokeswoman declined to comment on the spending patterns.

After Labor Day 2018, outside groups spent another $6 million in Arizona's House races. 

So far, the most prominent spending in Arizona after Labor Day by an outside group is $69,000 opposing Schweikert from 314 Action Fund, a PAC that advocates electing scientists to Congress.

The relative quiet this time comes as the coronavirus pandemic has put an even greater emphasis on voting early, especially by mail. That’s how the bulk of Arizona ballots are cast. 

In 2018, O’Halleran’s district, as well as the Tucson-based seat held by Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., were the two most contested races for outside groups. 

Arizona's slow start so far stands in contrast to what is playing out in a handful of other, more contested races around the country.

The NRCC, for example, has already poured $1.1 million into attacking Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., who is battling Republican Nancy Mace. For its part, the DCCC has spent $380,000 attacking Mace and $33,000 helping Cunningham.

Overall, the NRCC has spent in seven House races and the DCCC has spent in 11, including the attack on Shedd.

See what's on your ballot

Republic reporter Yvonne Wingett Sanchez contributed to this report.

Reach the reporter Ronald J. Hansen at or 602-444-4493. Follow him on Twitter @ronaldjhansen.

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