In the opening seconds of a campaign spot she's running titled "Independent," freshman House Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick is seen giving an interview on Fox News touting a bill she introduced that would cut the salaries of members of Congress. This is proof, if needed, that her geographically vast Arizona district is more conservative than most represented by Democrats.
Kirkpatrick was already facing a potential enthusiasm gap between Democrats and fired-up Republicans. Then came SB 1070, Arizona's controversial immigration legislation. That bill, favored by a majority of Arizonans but opposed by Kirkpatrick, ensured that those who favor the legislation, particularly those in the Phoenix suburbs, a small part of which make up her district, will probably be enthused enough to show up on election day.
Her opponent in the race, Republican Paul Gosar, a dentist, has been endorsed by the likes of Sarah Palin (one can call him a "Papa Grizzly") and Sheriff Joe Arpaio, primarily because of Gosar's support for SB 1070. Gosar has not hesitated to make immigration an issue in the race, calling on Kirkpatrick to return all SEIU campaign contributions because SEIU was vocal in its support for those who wanted to boycott Arizona over SB 1070 (Kirkpatrick was against the call for boycotts).
The voters in the vast rural swaths of this district had a libertarian bent long before the Tea Party made it cool, and Kirkpatrick has, most of the time, seemed mindful of this. This could be her saving grace. Kirkpatrick has cleverly managed to bring back some benefits to her district while also doing her best to maintain an image of concern about the debt and other fiscally conservative issues. Though she voted for the stimulus and health care reform, she was against the bank bailouts and cap-and-trade, and has even called on Democrat Charlie Rangel to resign. The NRA also recently gave her an "A" grade.
In keeping with the fiscally conservative elements in her district, she has recently gained national attention for the bill featured in her "Independent" ad. This bill proposes cutting members of Congress' salaries by 5 percent (she also sends 5 percent of her paycheck to the Treasury each month to pay down the debt). Kirkpatrick has acknowledged that this bill has not made her popular with her colleagues, an image that can only help her as voters are becoming more anti-establishment and anti-Washington.
Gosar, predictably, is trying to nationalize the election by attacking Kirkpatrick for being to the left of her constituents and supporting policies that have increased the country's debt, citing her vote for the stimulus and health care reform. Republicans are attacking Kirkpatrick for hosting "tele-town halls" and walking out of a local question-and-answer event as proof that she is out of touch with the voters in her district and not responsive to their concerns (Arizona Democrats will counter this last claim by saying Kirkpatrick was supposed to be meeting with individual voters but had to leave because activists crowded the event and made it impossible for her to have a dialogue).
Gosar is the strongest candidate the GOP could have nominated against Kirkpatrick, particularly because he lacked the political baggage of Sydney Hay, whom Kirkpatrick beat in '08. Some recent polls have shown Gosar with a slight lead over Kirkpatrick. National prognosticators have labeled this race a "toss-up" due to those polls.
Kirkpatrick, meanwhile, is trying to localize the election and will likely try to convince different constituencies in her district how effective she has been for them. For a first-term representative, Kirkpatrick has been a quick study on the legislative process. She has introduced 36 bills, six of which have passed the House. Both these numbers are high for any legislator, let alone a freshman.
Though there is a strong anti-Washington tenor to this election cycle, Kirkpatrick will get the most local attention for bills concerning veterans' issues, which are important to this district. She has diligently delivered and consistently reached out to this important constituency via measures that would increase veterans' disability pay, expand Native American veterans' access to housing grants (her district has the greatest percentage of Native Americans throughout the country), and increase access to health care for rural veterans.
Gosar, on the other hand, may get a fresh boost from the exposure and press after Palin featured him as one of 20 candidates on her "takebackthe20" website.
Kirkpatrick isn't the most polished campaigner or speaker, but she also doesn't come off as slick and programmed. This lack of polish may actually reinforce the "non-career politician" image that she touts. She's going to need that image to stick if she is to fend off Gosar. As of now, Kirkpatrick may have enough local credibility to win re-election. If a GOP tidal wave intensifies, though, she may not be in a strong enough position to resist it.
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