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Lawmakers Fight For GOP's Soul In Arizona Senate Primary

The biggest knock-down, drag-out primary election fight among the 90 Arizona Senate and House seats up for grabs in November features two sitting Republican lawmakers in a suburban north Phoenix district battling for the soul of the GOP.

Sen. Heather Carter, known as one of the more moderate GOP lawmakers, is defending her seat against a challenge from Rep. Nancy Barto, a social conservative who has embraced anti-abortion and religious freedom legislation.

Both have represented the 15th District, either in the Senate or House, for years — Barto since 2006 and Carter since winning her first election in 2010. They are not fast friends, and backers of the candidates have poured more than $1.8 million into the race, breaking about 2-1 for Carter. The health care community is backing Carter, while social conservative and low-tax groups have Barto's back.

The fierce GOP battle is playing out as Democrats see a chance to gain control of at least one legislative chamber for the first time in decades, a reality that's drawn business interests — traditional Republican allies — to get involved in Democratic primaries as well.

Carter is not happy with Barto's tactics, which have attacked her for opposing some, but not most, anti-abortion legislation over the years.

“The lies and political spin in this campaign are over the top. My opponent kicked off her campaign attacking me and it was weeks before she even talked about herself,” Carter said last week. “I’ve never seen anything like it in a legislative primary — and the voters are sick and tired of it.”

Carter touted her efforts to champion health care issues, pushing for laws addressing the opioid epidemic, physician shortages, telemedicine and expanding the state's Medicaid and KidsCare programs. And she said she is as anti-abortion as can be and only opposed unconstitutional restrictions on abortion.

“Not only am I pro-life but I am pro-pregnant mom, I am pro-mother,” Carter said. “Why does Nancy Barto fight me year after year to block the advance of some of the moms and baby bills that we’ve run.”

Barto is in a safe House seat and not term-limited, but said she is challenging Carter because the incumbent's values don't align with the district. She didn't return a call seeking comment, instead sending a lengthy statement explaining her reasons for running.

“Because it isn’t 'safe' to allow a Senator from this district to continue undermining the freedoms and values she was elected to defend, all while misleading the voters of our district,” she wrote. “For the last 10 years, Carter has repeatedly voted with Democrats against the principles and values our district holds — on limited, accountable government, education choice, protecting life and religious freedom, the 2nd amendment, illegal immigration and growing government health care.”

Carter said she votes with Republicans the vast majority of the time. But she has angered Republicans, especially in 2019 when she refused to back a state budget deal unless lawmakers approved a measure allowing people who were molested as children to sue their attackers.

Barto said its important to oust Carter to protect religious freedom and individual liberties.

“We are living in historic times and witnessing how our freedoms have already been dangerously eroding,” Barto wrote. “We can’t afford to see them destroyed.”

Whoever wins Tuesday's primary will automatically win the seat, since there's no Democrat running.

Other Republican incumbents also face primary challenges.

Sen. Sylvia Allen, a longtime 6th District lawmaker from Snowflake who chairs the Education Committee, is being challenged by retired Air Force Lt. Col. Wendy Rogers, who has run for Congress several times and now is eyeing the state Senate.

Rogers has spent more than $450,000 on her effort as of mid-July, vastly more than Allen’s $110,000, and outside groups poured in more than $430,000 backing or opposing the candidates.

Scottsdale Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita faces a well-funded challenge in the 23rd District from attorney Alex Kolodin, who has attacked her for being a “scandal-plagued" career politician.

That's a reference to allegations that she and her husband sexually harassed a female lobbyist, which she denies. Ugenti-Rita is a longtime lawmaker whose harassment allegations against former Rep. Don Shooter led to his expulsion.

Sen. David Livingston is being challenged by two underfunded GOP candidates in Peoria's 22nd District. And former Sen. Steve Montenegro, who left the Legislature under a cloud of misconduct himself to make an unsuccessful run for Congress, is trying for a comeback.

Montenegro is running for one of two 13th District House seats now held by Republicans Joanne Osborne and Timothy Dunn. The district runs from the western Phoenix suburbs down to Yuma County.