Originally Published: November 7, 2016 6 a.m.
PHOENIX — When Republican Martha McSally took on Democratic Rep. Ron Barber in Arizona's 2nd congressional district in 2014, the brutal race turned into the third-most expensive in the nation at $19.1 million, featuring nearly $11 million in outside spending on top of the candidates' own $8.2 million.
By the time a recount was completed more than a month after the low-turnout election, McSally defeated Barber by just 167 votes.
As McSally makes a bid for a second term in this week's election, however, the flow of outside money has mainly stopped. McSally hit a personal fundraising bonanza, raising more than $7.1 million as Republicans tried to ensure her seat was safe. Only in mid-October, as Arizona seemed to be in play for Democrats, did outside spending from a Republican House leadership committee enter the district with a pledge to spend $700,000 to back the freshman congresswoman.
McSally's Democratic opponent, physician Matt Heinz, raised just $1.4 million through mid-October and has seen just $60,000 in outside spending backing his run.
The low spending in the McSally-Heinz race for Arizona's 2nd congressional district seat compared with two years ago is a sign national Republicans and Democrats don't see Arizona's 1st and 2nd congressional districts as possible flips. Spending is also low compared with 2014 in the race between Republican Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu and Democrat Tom O'Halleran, a retired Chicago police officer who served in the state Legislature, in the state's 1st congressional district.
Early ballot returns show Democrats far outpacing Republicans in the McSally-Heinz race, in which turnout and independent voters can swing to either party depending on the election. McSally said she's taking nothing for granted, focusing on efforts to get out the vote to ensure that her supporters don't think she's got it in the bag and stay home. McSally noted that no national Democratic groups are spending this year for her opponent.
"In 2014 I had $10 million spent against me by a lot of outside groups, and not one of them is in supporting my opponent right now," McSally said in a recent interview. "They make business decisions, and they've seen that we're doing a good job and we've shown that in the last two years."
Still, in a district that is one of the most evenly split in the nation, McSally kept a jam-packed schedule in the final weekend of the campaign.
Heinz has painted McSally as a member of the most ineffective Congress ever, which forced President Barack Obama to turn to his federal agencies to get things done. McSally has run on her efforts to save the A-10 attack jet based in Tucson, on border security and on her efforts to help veterans and repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Heinz wants Obama's health care law tweaked to fix problems and wants comprehensive immigration reform on top of border security. He said the last-minute outside spending shows McSally thinks she's in trouble, despite her public confidence. "I don't listen to what people say, I watch what people do," Heinz said last week. "And I watched 2 ½ weeks ago when she pulled the fire alarm and called for help from Speaker Paul Ryan's super-PAC, when out of nowhere $700,000 in attack ads dumped into this district against me."
McSally said she did no such thing, but she notes that no Democratic groups have jumped in to back Heinz.
Similar spending flooded into Arizona's 1st District in 2014, where Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick easily beat then-House Speaker Andy Tobin in a race ranked by political spending website OpenSecrets.org as the 6th priciest that year. Total candidate and outside spending hit $18 million, more than $12 million from outside groups.
Early ballot returns show a much more even split than in the 2nd District.
This year, Babeu is getting no support from national GOP groups and being hit with negative ads by Democratic groups focused on allegations that he oversaw a Massachusetts boarding school from 1999-2001 where students were abused.
Also in the mix is a federal investigation into the use of seized money and fallout from the 2012 congressional campaign he dropped after pictures surfaced of him in his underwear that he had posted on a dating website. Spending in the district from all sources this year is about $6 million.
Babeu faces O'Halleran, who served in the state Legislature as a Republican from 2001 to 2009. He paints himself as a moderate whose politics haven't changed but switched parties when the GOP moved to the far right.
In a debate in late September, the two sparred over tax cuts. Babeu pledging to collapse tax brackets and said O'Halleran was a big spender when he was in the Legislature. O'Halleran said the state budget grew because of population growth and of the two candidates he was the only one who cut taxes.
Both candidates agreed that protecting coal jobs in the district that runs from Flagstaff to Marana and includes much of rural eastern Arizona is a must.
Incumbent Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick is challenging Sen. John McCain.
Arizona's seven other congressional districts aren't seen as particularly competitive, with three Democrats and four Republicans seen as cruising to victories.