Less than two months before Republicans select a congressional nominee in Arizona's open 1st District, a just-completed survey shows Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu — by far one of the most unique GOP contenders for Congress anywhere in the U.S. — topping the seven-candidate primary field with 40 per cent of the vote.
The race is being watched by national leaders in both parties as well as the national media.
With incumbent Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick relinquishing her seat to challenge Republican Sen. John McCain, the very marginal Democratic-leaning 1st District is one of a handful nationwide that could "flip" to Republican this fall.
But the other reason for the growing attention on Arizona-1 is Babeu himself— a lawman and border hard-liner who has become a national hero to many conservatives.
In 2012, the National Sheriff's Association named Babeu National Sheriff of the Year.
Babeu, a pro-lifer, former U.S. Army Reserve major, and a stalwart conservative also is gay.
"All of my friends and family knew it, and, although I never went around and advertised it, it was one of the worst-kept secrets in the county when I ran for sheriff," Babeu told Newsmax.
Babeu has been elected twice in landslide wins in his home county and says his popularity will help him win this up-for-grabs seat.
He is now seeking nomination for Congress in the primarily rural 1s tDistrict, which is larger than New York State and home to the largest concentration of American Indians (22 percent) of any congressional district in the U.S.
In a district that suffers an extreme impact from the porous U.S-Mexican border, Babeu is frequently asked—not surprisingly--about his stand on border security.
"We've got to secure our border in order to stop the onslaught of crime, period" he said, recalling how he oversaw the "Pipeline Express" operation that became the largest drug bust along the border.
Overall, Babeu noted proudly, "there has been a 94 percent reduction of illegals and drugs crossing over the border and this is connected to my military service in Yuma commanding 700 troops helping the US Border Patrol secure the Yuma Sector."
He also noted that the efforts of his department along the border led to the capture of 21 drug cartel scouts and 108 firearms linked to the notorious Guzman gang of Mexico.
Babeu, whose Army service includes a tour in Iraq, is also anxious to deal with foreign policy in Congress. In his words, "No one should be wondering how ISIS came about. When President Obama set a deadline and withdrew our troops, he relinquished any influence the U.S. could have in Iraq. It was a recipe for disaster — up popped ISIS."
The Defend Our Nation Political Action Committee, which supports veterans running for Congress, just weighed in with a strong endorsement and check for Babeu. (When John Kennedy and Richard Nixon entered the House in 1946, 71 percent of its members were veterans; today, only 14 percent have served in the military.)
The new OH Predictive Insights poll (conducted for Babeu's campaign) showed the sheriff leading the GOP field with 40 percent of the vote, followed by former Arizona Secretary of State and gubernatorial hopeful Ken Bennett with 11 percent, rancher and past U.S. House hopeful Gary Kiehne 10 percent, and four other candidates at 3 percent and below.
The winner of the primary will almost surely face Republican-turned-Democrat Tom 0'Halleran, a former state legislator and ally of former Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano.
State and national GOP operatives have high hopes of picking up the 1st District, pointing out that both Mitt Romney and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey carried the district in '12 and '14 respectively.
Inevitably, questions about the tragedy in Orlando, Florida and resulting comments from the White House about Republicans not caring about gay Americans are posed to Babeu.
"They're wrong," he said, "The Republican Party is an open party and a big tent. I'm a living, breathing example of that."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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