PHOENIX — Republican Doug Ducey resonates confidence and positive energy, projecting an air that his election as the next governor of Arizona is a sure thing.
Ducey's Aug. 26 victory over five other Republicans in a heated primary race cemented that confidence, and he's aiming to take the same campaign message that worked for Republican primary voters into the general election bid.
"Our positive optimistic message of an Arizona that's reforming, job creating and welcoming is one that worked very well in the primary," Ducey said in an interview the day after his win. "And I just think that we need to amplify that message and talk about kick-starting our economy, improving our education system and being a state that reflects opportunity for all."
But Ducey will face an opponent in Democrat Fred DuVal who will force him to give more details on his plans for changing the tax code and education funding — and is trying to send his own message that the Republican is not a candidate who has broad support.
"Two-thirds of the Republicans chose someone else, so it's hardly a mandate considering the expenditure," DuVal said of Ducey's primary win. "I'm going positive with (former Attorney General) Grant Woods and many other Republicans that say (I'm) a bi-partisan, collaborative centrist, and Doug is campaigning next week with Sarah Palin. That's the difference."
Democrats hope to wrest away control of the governor's office for the first time since Gov. Jan Brewer succeeded Janet Napolitano in 2009. If DuVal succeeds, he'll still face a Legislature that is solidly controlled by Republicans, which would somewhat limit his ability to make major policy changes.
Republicans hold a registration advantage over Democrats, but more Arizonans are registered as independents than either party.
Stu Rothenberg, a well-respected political handicapper in Washington, calls DuVal a good candidate who could give Ducey a run for his money in Republican-leaning Arizona. Bruce Merrill, a longtime pollster and senior research fellow at Arizona State University's Morrison Institute for Public Policy, gave DuVal less of a chance — but a chance.
"It's not impossible that DuVal could win, in fact I thought getting Grant Woods to spearhead his campaign was a very smart thing. And if he runs a good campaign, he'll be competitive," Merrill said. "But I think it's fair to say that it's Ducey's campaign to lose."
Of particular concern to DuVal is education funding, which was cut by the Legislature and Brewer when the recession hit. But Arizona's Supreme Court ruled last year that the Legislature violated the will of voters when it stopped annual inflation adjustments and said the funding must be restored.
A Maricopa County judge court ruled on Aug. 21 that the Legislature must immediately boost funding for K-12 schools by about $317 million this budget year, and continue it into the future, an order that would cost the state treasury more than $1.6 billion over five years. Judge Katherine Cooper is also considering whether the state must repay schools another $1.3 billion they didn't get in the past five years, bringing the total to about $2.9 billion.
Ducey said he supports an appeal of that ruling. But if the state loses, he hinted that schools should not expect to see the cash, at least not without major strings.
"If the courts rule that there's going to be more money that's going to be put into K-12 education of course we will respect the courts," he said. "But I will use the opportunity to reform these funding formulas so that we are getting better results and outcomes from our schools for our children."
Such proposals don't sit well with DuVal, who was a member of the state Board of Regents, which oversees universities, until 2012. He said an appeal is just postponing the inevitable.
"The voters have spoken on school funding, and we've got to get on board and get on with it," DuVal said. "We've got to make this investment."
The state is already facing a budget shortfall in the coming budget yet approaching $300 million, according to the Legislature's budget analysts. If the courts order full payments in the school funding case, that shortfall would be about $900 million — about 10 percent of state budget spending. If they also order back payments, that number soars to $1.4 billion by the 2015 budget year.
That's why DuVal questions Ducey's proposal to overhaul income taxes and change the state's Medicaid program, which was expanded by Brewer over opposition from her own party.
"It is not realistic — the notion of repealing the income tax, that's not realistic," DuVal said. "There's a lot of this that just doesn't add up."