With Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona running for Senate, House Democrats are once again losing a precious resource—a lawmaker who can win in a swing district.
Kirkpatrick's announcement that she will challenge Sen. John McCain in 2016, along with Rep. Patrick Murphy's Senate bid in Florida, leaves House Democrats with only three incumbents defending districts that Mitt Romney won in 2012: freshman Reps. Gwen Graham of Florida and Brad Ashford of Nebraska, and Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota. Republicans, meanwhile, hold 25 seats President Obama won in 2012.
In Kirkpatrick and Murphy, Democrats have two strong Senate candidates who can appeal to independents, but they lose two incumbents who were uniquely attuned to their House districts. Kirkpatrick won reelection in a conservative-leaning district by touting a bipartisan approach and a personal connection to the district's large bloc of Native American voters. In Florida, Murphy similarly defended his swing district by focusing on local, nonpartisan issues like attracting jobs and restoring a lagoon.
In both cases, Democrats could struggle to find replacements with a similar bipartisan appeal.
"We don't have someone who can just replace Kirkpatrick," said Democratic consultant Andy Barr. "She was a great candidate, tailored to the district."
Within hours after Kirkpatrick's announcement, Democrats tossed around names of potential successors. Coconino County Supervisor Liz Archuleta said she will consider running, and Navajo County Attorney Brad Carlyon said he won't rule it out. Barr also mentioned 2014 gubernatorial nominee Fred DuVal and former state Rep. and Navajo Nation presidential candidate Chris Deschene.
On the Republican side, former state House speaker and 2014 nominee Andy Tobin said he is considering running, and current Speaker David Gowan's spokeswoman said he also mulling a bid. A consultant for Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu has previously said Babeu might run, while rancher Gary Kiehne, who lost to Tobin in the 2014 primary, has already said he will run.
Democratic consultant Matthew Capalby said some of the potential candidates have shown signs of matching some of Kirkpatrick's strengths. Deschene, for example, could similarly dominate the Native American vote, he said. But on either side, the nominee will have to follow Kirkpatrick's lead in building a coalition of supporters in a geographically and ethnically diverse district.
Kirkpatrick succeeded in appealing to Native American tribes, mining communities, conservative Mormon communities, and the liberal college town of Flagstaff, Capalby said, adding that she's "done an outstanding job of representing and developing that consensus."
Similarly, candidates vying for Murphy's seat in Florida will try to use his template. Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, one of two Democrats hoping to replace him, said she has "a similar approach" to Murphy in focusing on the economy and local environmental issues.
In the absence of a perfect replacement, Democrats' best hope at keeping Kirkpatrick's seat is if Republicans fail to field a quality candidate. In 2014, Tobin emerged from a rough primary fight with Kiehne and state Rep. Adam Kwasman, both considered more tea party-aligned candidates, and had little money left after the late August primary to run against Kirkpatrick. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee communications director Matt Thornton said he expects to see a "highly competitive and, for lack of a better word, highly amusing Republican primary" in 2016.
But for Democrats to even approach regaining the House majority, the party will have to keep seats like Kirkpatrick's and Murphy's and win new ones, said National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Katie Martin.
"The DCCC will have a real problem moving forward in 2016 when they have folks like Murphy and Kirkpatrick running for Senate," Martin said. "If they want any chance of taking back the House, as the DCCC chair claimed they are going to do, they need to defend these seats."