TEMPE, Ariz. – Tanya Contreras Wheeless was born to a teen mom and grew up in a family living pay check-to-pay check.
She took a job at a local bakery when she was 14 to earn spending money, but still managed to earn an academic scholarship for college. But she kept mopping floors and working the register on weekends and over breaks to continue earning extra cash.
Wheeless became the first person in her family to graduate from college and ultimately joined a law firm after becoming an attorney. She went on to become a lobbyist for a banking association and later joined the Phoenix Suns as an executive. She eventually quit to start a consulting firm before staffing for then-Sen. Martha McSally.
Now, Wheeless, a second-generation Mexican American, is vying to become the first Latina to represent Arizona in Congress.
“I got into the race to protect the American dream,” Wheeless, a Republican, told Fox News from her home in an exclusive interview. “I am a product of that.”
“My grandmother immigrated here from Mexico as a young girl,” the former Phoenix Suns executive continued. “And so I believe in the power of that.”
The timing of Wheeless’ run in Arizona’s 4th District may couple well with her background: The Republican Party has courted Hispanic candidates for November’s midterm elections as Latinos have trended away from Democrats and toward the GOP.
Indeed, Wheeless scored endorsements from the Congressional Leadership Fund – a super PAC tied to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy – and from House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik.
Wheeless also criticized Democrats, saying they take “Latino support for granted,” she told Fox News, days after first lady Jill Biden compared the Hispanic community to breakfast tacos.
“Things like that also show where the Democrat Party is losing the support of the Latino community because we’re put into this box,” Wheeless told Fox News. “And I think this is going to be a huge wakeup call for them in November.”
“The values that certainly were in my family growing up – and I think with many Latino families – of faith and family and freedom and entrepreneurship … are in alignment with the Republican Party,” Wheeless continued. “We’re going to see a greater number of Latinos coming to the Republican Party.”
Still, the former banking lobbyist faces a crowded primary in Arizona’s 4th District. Her opponents, include a veteran and businessman aligning himself with the MAGA platform, a candidate who’s twice made it to the general election, and a former NFL running back who received national attention after running a shock ad.
But Wheeless is confident her humble upbringing will carry her to victory in Tuesday’s primary election. She also believes her district is frustrated with Democrats over kitchen table issues, like inflation, and will vote to unseat Rep. Greg Stanton.
“From a policy standpoint, I think there are some pretty significant differences between myself and the incumbent,” Wheeless told Fox News. “I want secure borders. I want less spending. I want to always have the backs of our law enforcement.”
“These are things that he has not been a leader on in Congress, and I will be,” she continued.
But it wouldn’t be an easy race: Stanton’s district “leans Democrat” by two points, according to Cook Political Report.
‘You learn grit’
Despite growing up in a working class family, Wheeless considers herself fortunate.
“I was so lucky to be raised by real salt of the earth people,” she told Fox News. “We learned at a young age that no one was going to hand anything to us.”
Wheeless’ parents had various jobs throughout Wheeless’ childhood, with her mom at one point working at Kmart and her dad in construction.
“I was raised with that old fashioned ethic of your word is your bond,” Wheeless told Fox News. “You work hard. You take care of your family.”
“I also think when you grow up with nothing, you work a little harder to make something,” she continued. “You learn grit.”
Wheeless’ grandparents certainly knew grit. Both her grandfathers worked blue collar jobs, while her maternal grandmother was a nurse.
Her father’s mother, meanwhile, stayed home with the family, but only after she immigrated with Wheeless’ great grandparents to the U.S. as a young girl. There, she worked on a farm as a teenager and into her 20s, according to Wheeless.
Eventually, Wheeless’ great grandparents opened a shop and even bought homes they rented out.
“I think that was their version of the American dream,” Wheeless said.
That accomplishment is central to Wheeless’ platform. During her interview with Fox News, she repeatedly touted the importance of the American dream and worried that liberal policies are making it harder to achieve.
“I was unhappy with the direction of our country,” Wheeless said. “To me, having a strong economy, having safe communities are essential.”
“I saw what was happening under the Biden administration and with the Democrats in D.C. as not being supportive of that,” she continued.
On the campaign trail, Wheeless draws on her childhood, rather than her working experience, despite her executive bona fides.
“What I’m going to remember is my mom sitting at the kitchen table struggling to think when is my brother going to get new cleats?” Wheeless told Fox News. “I look back and I’m grateful because we learned to appreciate small things.”
“As I think about being a congresswoman for this district, I will take all of that with me,” she continued.
Hit from the left and right
But Wheeless’ work history could be a liability in her campaign.
Wheeless “was a Big Bank lobbyist at the height of the subprime mortgage crisis when hundreds of thousands of Arizonans were forced out of their homes as a result of the behavior and policies she championed,” Stanton’s campaign manager, Caitlin Johnson, told Fox News.
Wheeless disputed the characterization. She said most of the organizations she represented were community banks, though she noted some were larger.
“The community banks here and throughout the state, they didn’t do any of the things that started the subprime debacle or,” Wheeless said. “Community banks are so essential to the community, to our state, because they provide the loans that small businesses need to get started, other businesses to grow and certainly for families to buy homes and cars.”
“I would look at this and say this is an example of me standing up for the little guy,” she added.
That strikes at the heart of another key part of Wheeless’ platform: Bolstering local communities to create support systems that aren’t reliant on the federal government.
“I also think about how the community can step up for each other,” she said. “Government doesn’t always have to be the answer to everything.”
“You can fall into a trap where you think it’s government’s job to solve all of your problems,” Wheeless continued.
Still, her time as a lobbyist isn’t her only potential baggage.
Wheeless has donated at least $2,180 to Democratic campaigns in Arizona, The Arizona Republic reported in July, a fact a primary opponent, Kelly Cooper, called out during an interview with Fox News. Her contributions include $680 in donations to Stanton’s mayoral runs in Phoenix.
“As a valley business leader, Tanya wrote checks to a variety of candidates for different offices – much like President Donald Trump when he was in business,” Wheeless’ campaign manager, Katie Larkin, told the Arizona Republic in a statement. “It should be noted that Tanya has given 4x more to Republicans than Democrats, has never been a registered Democrat, nor has she ever campaigned for Democrats.”
Larkin also listed several endorsements Wheeless has scored, including the Border Patrol union, and various law enforcement groups.
Douglas Wolfe, the campaign manager for primary candidate Dave Giles, told Fox News in an email: “Wheeless will give away Az freedoms and 2nd amendment rights.” He said she made comments in favor of tighter gun control at a public event in the spring. Fox News couldn’t find record of those alleged remarks.
“Tanya is a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment and has an AQ rating from the NRA,” Larkin told Fox News in a statement. “Anyone who says otherwise is misinformed.”
“AQ” is the National Rifle Association’s highest grade for a candidate without a voting record. It’s also the same rating as Giles, who was armed with a pistol and two magazines during his interview with Fox News.
Regardless, Wheeless feels that in November, voters will look at issues like inflation and public safety concerns, stemming in part from border insecurity.
“What voters are really going to be doing when they go to the ballot box is making a decision between change and no change,” she told Fox News. “Do you feel like things are on the right track and life is going well for you now? Or do you want a change?”
“I think what they’re going to find is that they don’t feel like things are going great, and they’re going to be ready for a change,” Wheeless said. “And I look forward to delivering that.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified Wheeless’ grandmothers. We regret the error.