In Arizona, Democrats are looking to the future. Facing a shallow bench nationwide the party is being forced to rely on formerly defeated officials to reclaim the Senate and House. But not in the state of Arizona.
On Tuesday Democratic Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick announced she would challenge Senator John McCain for the state’s Senate seat. Kirkpatrick, who currently represents the swing 1st Congressional District, has a history of winning challenging elections.
In 2008 she won the open 1st Congressional District by a 16% margin. She struggled to overcome the GOP wave of 2010 and lost but by a mere 6% in a Republican district. Redistricting shuffled the map and she jumped at the chance to run in a more competitive 1st District. Despite being carried by Mitt Romney in 2012 she won by 3% against a strong GOP challenger. Last year she won again by 5% to be one of five Democrats representing districts Mitt Romney won (NB-1, FL-2, MN-7 and MN-1).
John McCain is a solidly entrenched five-term incumbent in a GOP leaning state. But Kirkpatrick gives the party the appeal to demographics they need to carry the state. Her competitive district includes many Native American areas and she has appealed to these groups in her recent election victories. She also has the moderate ideological persona that would allow her to eat into the GOP stronghold of Maricopa County. Historically, successful statewide Democratic contenders have won at least 45% of the vote in the county.
She also is not burdened with a highly liberal voting record. Though she did vote for Obamacare and the Stimulus she has kept to a much more centrist record since. This will greatly benefit her in a Presidential year when Arizona still remains more Republican than not even with increased turnout.
But there is an added wrinkle to her bid. The US Supreme Court is currently weighing a challenge to the state’s current Congressional map. If the court sides with the state GOP it would reshuffle the state’s political landscape. Republicans, who control the legislature and Governor’s office would likely redraw the state map and drive Congressman Kyrsten Sinema to run for Senate instead of a redesigned Republican leaning district. Further, Kirkpatrick could see her district change and become much more Republican.
John McCain is not safe in the current political environment however. Much of the state’s GOP grassroots dislike the Senator for being to moderate and he faces a primary challenge from his right. So far, it is only from one state GOP Senator and outside groups which targeted him in 2010 are sitting on the sidelines. But that could change and allow Kirkpatrick to portray herself as a moderate, bipartisan Senator while the GOP primary bloodies the eventual winner.
Still, the race will be an uphill slog for Kirkpatrick. Her vote for Obamacare is sure to be used in 2016 and John McCain, if he is the GOP’s nominee, will tout his experience. And while demographic trends in the state favor Democrats they are not quite at the point where it gives a Democrat an edge in statewide, federal contests. Worse, John McCain has shown a tendency to perform better among Hispanics than most statewide Republicans. He carried 40% of the Hispanic vote in 2010 while then gubernatorial candidate Jan Brewer won a mere 28%.
Kirkpatrick starts this race as an underdog. But at least she is giving Democrats something they have been missing in their quest to retake Congress; a candidate who is not a blast from the past but new blood.