Rocket Woman: What Propels a 28-Year-Old Tea Party Rocket Scientist to Congress?

PHOTO Arizona congressional candidate Ruth McClung speaks to the UAs College Republicans chapter, in this Sept. 7, 2010 file photo, in the SUMCs Kiva Room.

It's unusual enough that a 28-year-old rocket scientist is running for Congress. It's unusual enough that she's a self-proclaimed "conservative Republican" backed by the Tea Party running in a substantially liberal Arizona district. It's unusual enough that, running in a Latino-majority district that shares hundreds of miles of border with Mexico, the candidate does not speak Spanish.

But the most unusual thing about Ruth McClung: she might actually win.

"We're moving this race to toss-up," said David Wasserman, House editor for the non-partisan Cook Political Report. "This is a big surprise for Democrats."

The very fact that a district like Arizona's 7th has become competitive is a testament to just how far the wave of anti-incumbent, anti-Democrat sentiment has spread.

McClung is running against four-term incumbent Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., who sailed to an easy victory in 2008 with 63 percent of the vote.

"In the past, Grijalva has had, at best, nominal competition," said Barbara Norrander, a professor of political science at the University of Arizona. "Usually [the GOP] has difficulty getting good quality candidates to run in the Republican primary for that district, just because most of the time they don't think they would have a chance of winning the general election."

But after the Arizona legislature passed a controversial immigration enforcement bill, Grijalva called for a targeted economic boycott against his own state.

"We're asking organizations ... to refrain from using Arizona as a convention site, to refrain from spending their dollars in the state of Arizona until Arizona turns the clock forward instead of backwards," Grijalva said on MSNBC in April.

He's since changed his stance on the boycott, calling it a "strategic mistake," but McClung has made it a major campaign issue.

"Tourism is huge here in Arizona, so the boycott obviously hurt us a bit when that was called for," McClung, who is on leave from a job at Raytheon, said in an interview. It's proved to be a potent issue in the district.

Besides opposition to the boycott, the Republican is also campaigning on bringing more jobs to southern Arizona.

Unemployment in Arizona has risen in recent months to 9.7 percent. One city in the 7th district, Yuma, finds itself with one of the nation's highest unemployment rates: 30.2 percent.

Political analysts say Grijalva made a major misstep calling for a boycott of his state at a time when so many people were out of work.

"Grijalva's advocacy of the boycott and subsequent call to stop the boycott have alienated multiple blocks of voters," Wasserman said.

"Calling for the boycott was wrong for a number of reasons politically," said Isaac Wood, House race editor at Sabato's Crystal Ball, part of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "I think it really fed into a narrative that he was detached from the economic reality."

"Calling for the boycott was more of an extreme position. And other Democrats in the state didn't do that, so he was more out there by himself," Norrander said.

Grijalva himself has admitted calling for the boycott was a mistake.

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