PHOENIX - Conservative Republicans furious with some members of their own party for supporting Gov. Jan Brewer's Medicaid expansion plan are targeting a half-dozen lawmakers in next week's primary in a nasty intra-party battle.
The campaign is particularly vicious in Chandler, where Rep. Bob Robson was accused of removing signs opposing his re-election and now faces misdemeanor tampering charges. He and his lawyer deny the allegations.
Robson is among the lawmakers who supported Brewer's Medicaid expansion last year and are now being targeted by tea party Republicans and a group called the Alliance of Principled Conservatives. In response, Brewer is spending cash from her Arizona's Legacy political action committee to back her supporters.
The Medicaid expansion plan pushed by Brewer in the 2013 legislative session fractured the party, with a handful of Republicans splitting with the conservatives and voting with Democrats to approve her plan. The move angered tea party Republicans, who found it offensive that the state embraced a centerpiece of President Barack Obama's health care law.
"They're causing irreparable financial damage to the state of Arizona for one, and No. 2 they ran on the platform of the Republican party they asked for the party's nomination and then they basically violated probably the core principal of that party platform," said Frank Antenori, a former state senator from Tucson and co-chair of the group. "They're free to run with what their true label out to be - and that's as a progressive, not as a Republican. And particularly not as a conservative Republican."
Besides Robson, those targeted include Reps. Doug Coleman, Kate Brophy McGee, Frank Pratt, T.J. Shope and Heather Carter. Rep. Jeff Dial, who is running for Senate, is also on the list, as is Sen. Bob Worsley.
Brophy McGee, who backed Brewer and has benefited from more than $12,000 in spending by her PAC, said the primary fight within the Republican Party is very tough but "we need to refocus on what we need to get done, not just now and in November but also on the national stage in 2016."
As for the tea party Republicans, "I would say that they are entitled to their opinion but it does not represent a vision for the future of Arizona in any way, shape or form," McGee said. "They're angry and they're upset, but they're not and never have offered solutions."
The fight among Republicans is brutal and intense, said A.J. LaFaro, chairman of the Maricopa County Republican Party,
"It's just one of the nastiest primaries I've experienced in my life," LaFaro said.
Carter, who is among the Brewer backers targeted by conservatives, agreed.
"When I'm out knocking on doors it's probably the first thing people talk about," Carter said. "Even before they talk about issues, they talk about how frustrated they are that there is so much mud being slung and so many lies being told."
In Robson's District 18, "Voted for Obamacare" signs with arrows pointing to re-elect Robson signs were placed by precinct committeeman Mike Richardson of Mesa. Richardson said more than a hundred of those signs were destroyed and removed, so a volunteer replaced them and then began watching the area. On the evening of Aug. 9, he said the volunteer spotted Robson driving up in his truck, and another person getting out and removing them.
Robson's attorney Tom Ryan said Tuesday the signs didn't meet the statute as a campaign sign because there's no candidate name on them - and Robson didn't tamper with or take any signs regardless.
"Bob Robson is a factually innocent man. He did not do this. But I do have evidence of Mike Richardson tampering and destroying signs that do have Bob Robson and Jeff Dial's name on them," Ryan said. "I have photographs, and I have videos, and you can see his face as clear as a bell."
Chandler police had closed the complaint from Richardson for lack of evidence, but the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office investigated and issued a citation to Robson on Monday night on a misdemeanor charge of tampering with campaign signs, Lt. Brandon Jones said. The class 2 misdemeanor carries a maximum penalty of four months in jail and a $750 fine.
"I've very disappointed to see the county sheriff's office engaged in a political prosecution," Ryan said. "The city of Chandler was correct to look at it and say there's no evidence."
Brewer said Tuesday she is backing candidates she believes will serve the state well and that primaries are inherently nasty.
"I think that we all know that during a primary, things get kinda hot and heavy and a lot of things are said. A lot of things were said before the primary that were mean and nasty and ugly by some people," Brewer said. "And after (next) Tuesday night, I hope we can all come together and be Republicans under one tent. That's what I would strive for."