WASHINGTON, Oct. 20, 2010 -- 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.
"It was a strategic mistake because we weren't influencing any of the decision makers to change their minds. And then the court case happened," he said in an interview, referring to a federal injunction halting portions of the law, "which was good, it means we have some time and then we'll live through that whole court process and see what the final decision is."
A Tightening Race
Three recent polls have shown the race to be very close, something altogether unexpected in such a liberal district. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) reacted by spending more than $62,000 on an ad hitting McClung for being "radical" in her tax proposals.
The ad ends with the tag line: "Ruth McClung: radical ideas we can't afford."
The potential of a competitive race has drawn more than just national dollars. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin endorsed McClung last week.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that our country is on the wrong track under the leadership of Obama, Pelosi, and Reid; but Ruth actually is a rocket scientist!" Palin wrote on her Facebook page.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney also endorsed McClung.
Rocketing Fundraising and National Money in the Race
In the period ending Sept. 30, Grijalva had outraised McClung by a margin of 7-to-1, according to federal campaign finance records. But a McClung campaign staffer said they have raised a lot of money in October and now have about $200,000 cash on hand.
McClung has been campaigning since May 2009, but only in the last few weeks has she started to get national attention and national money. She mentioned her campaign had recently raised more than $100,000 online in a little over a day.
"We were a campaign that was pretty much under the radar, it was all grass roots," she said. "Suddenly both of us have ... have had a lot of money coming into this district. So it's kind of revamped the whole campaign."
Besides the DCCC, other national organizations have thrown their money into Arizona's 7th district, according to federal campaign records.
Last week two conservative groups put money into the district: Americans for Limited Government spent more than $20,000 on direct mail in opposition to Grijalva and Americans for Tax Reform, a group pushing for a flat income tax, put more than $30,000 into TV ads against Grijalva.
Grijalva decried the money being spent against him and said, along with the Arizona immigration bill and economy, it explained why the race appeared tighter for him than in 2008.
But the national mood is also at play in his district.
Tea Party Connection
"I'm a Tea Party-backed candidate," McClung said. "I believe in less government spending ... and I'm a big believer in getting the power back to the local level. I've been to many tea parties across the district and that seems to be the unifying theme," she said.
But McClung also explained that she strived for and succeeded in getting bipartisan support.
"I'm just really excited going out, meeting the people. It's quite a bit of bipartisan support in this district, which I have to have -- it's more than two-to-one Democrat to Republican," she said.
"This district is dealing with quite a bit. I've mentioned the crime ... it's pretty much the number one drug corridor in the nation. You have Yuma, with one of the highest unemployment [rates]. You have areas that have been hit extremely hard with the housing market," McClung said. "So I do believe this is a good time for a change for district seven."
If voters decide to elect a 28-year-old rocket scientist to the House, it will be a strong indication of how deep their desire for change is.