Tucson Democratic candidate moves to challenge Az Sen. Justine Wadsack

Tucson-area Democrats have found a challenger for the LD 17 Arizona Senate seat now held by controversial lawmaker Justine Wadsack.

John McLean, an executive with a long career working for a high-tech defense
contractor, has taken the first step toward running in this year’s

McLean, 67, who has also been active in the local dog rescue community, filed a Feb. 16 statement of interest in the Legislative District 17 race, which will be decided in the Nov. 5 general election.

He has served as CEO of Areté Associates, a Defense Department contractor that bills itself as providing “leading-edge science and engineering protecting the nation and world from seafloor to space,” and previously worked for TRW Space and Defense Group.

Arizona Democrats see Tucson’s Legislative District 17 as a potential swing district as they seek to flip the Arizona Senate, which is currently split 16-14 in the Republican Party’s favor.

Legislative District 17 is tough sledding for Democrats. As of Jan. 1, 38 percent of LD17 voters were Republicans, 29 percent were Democrats and 33 percent were independent of those two parties, according to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office. The district includes precincts in Pinal County’s Saddlebrooke and Pima County’s Oro Valley and Marana, as well as Tucson’s East Side and Vail.

But Democratic strategists see Wadsack as vulnerable because in her first term, she proposed legislation that would ban books in schools and criminalize drag shows and homelessness. She’s also picked a fight with the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind, suggesting the local institution expand its mission to also educate a variety of special-needs students.

Three statewide Democratic candidates—Sen. Mark Kelly, Gov. Katie Hobbs and Secretary of State Adrian Fontes—won Legislative District 17 in the 2022 midterms. Democrats anticipate their party’s turnout will be higher in a presidential election year.

When Wadsack first won office in 2022, she won by less than 3 percentage points, winning 51.2 percent of the vote to Democrat Mike Nickerson’s 48.8 percent.

An effort to recall Wadsack last year fizzled out and organizers did not turn in the signatures they had gathered.

But Wadsack may not be the GOP nominee, as a fight is shaping up in the July 30 Republican primary. Former lawmaker Vince Leach is campaigning to win back a Senate seat.

Two years ago, Wadsack defeated Leach by 2,168 votes in the GOP primary, capturing 41 percent to Leach’s 35 percent. A third candidate, Robert Barr, captured 24 percent.

Leach, who served two terms in the House of Representatives and two terms in the Senate, told The Sentinel that Wadsack wasn’t friendly to the business community, citing her support for legislation that would disband the Arizona Commerce Authority.

As she gears up for reelection, Wadsack has been courting members of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council and other business leaders to persuade them to support her.

Wadsack has declined several Tucson Sentinel requests to discuss her reelection campaign.

In the Legislative District 17 House race, incumbent Republican Reps. Cory McGarr and Rachel Jones may face a primary opponent. Anna Orth, who ran against the two freshman incumbents in 2022, filed a statement of interest in the race on Wednesday, Feb. 21. Orth, who had the endorsement of both former state lawmaker and unsuccessful Secretary of State candidate Mark Finchem and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, captured about 19 percent of the vote in the GOP primary, while Jones and McGarr captured about 25 percent.

Commercial real estate agent Kevin Volk is the only Democrat who has filed.