Kirkpatrick won her seat in a Democratic wave year, but has since antagonized district residents by voting for the federal stimulus legislation, President Obama’s health care bill and other Democratic issues.
In 2009, she famously walked out of a raucous town hall meeting at a supermarket in Holbrook after an angry group of constituents started barraging her with questions and criticism, making her look overwhelmed and out-of-touch with her voters.
Kirkpatrick’s voting record in Congress has riled Republicans and some independent voters, but it has also made some Democrats uncomfortable. She alienated environmentalist groups with her support for coal-fired power plants and new copper mines, and ran crosswise with groups such as the Sierra Club after voting against “cap-and-trade” legislation in 2009.
The Republican candidates are trying to exploit what they see as Kirkpatrick’s weaknesses, but none of them appears to have gained the confidence of a majority of voters in the district. Each has definable strengths, but polling has been sparse and the primary race has baffled most political prognosticators.
“Rasmussen and the rest them (pollsters) kind of threw up their hands,” said Steve Mehta, one of the Republican candidates in the district.
Flagstaff dentist Paul Gosar has frontrunner money and heavyweight endorsements from Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, while mining lobbyist Sydney Hay said she earned millions of dollars worth of name recognition during her 2008 campaign against Kirkpatrick.
The other GOP candidates say Gosar and Hay are overestimating their strength.
Rusty Bowers, a former state Senate president, is the only GOP candidate who has held elected office and is touting himself as the only candidate with the experience to do the job. Mehta, a cardiologist, and Globe attorney Bradley Beauchamp are promoting themselves as anti-establishment candidates.
The only available polling on the race shows Gosar with a wide lead. But that late July poll was commissioned by Gosar himself and its veracity is disputed by his opponents.
Gosar’s poll, conducted by Oregon-based Moore Information, showed him with 30 percent of the vote and a whopping 20-point lead over the second-place Hay, while Beauchamp, Bowers and Mehta trailed in single digits. Forty-one percent of respondents were undecided.
Hay and Beauchamp accused Gosar of push polling, and other political observers and consultants said the results were dubious.
“Hay won the last primary in pretty convincing fashion,” said Republican consultant Constantin Querard. “I think any poll that said that she was at 10 percent is probably a little suspect.”
Fred Solop, who chairs Northern Arizona University’s Department of Political Science, called Gosar the frontrunner based on fundraising and prolific television advertising, but doesn’t think the dentist is breaking away from the pack. He didn’t put much stock in Gosar’s poll, but said it was believable that 41 percent of respondents were undecided.
“It really has not been that visible to people up here,” Solop said. “It’s hard for someone to develop a districtwide presence.”
Adding to the candidates’ difficulties is the massive size and diversity of the district, one of the largest in the country. Campaigning in a district that stretches from the Four Corners to just north of Pima County makes knocking on doors and advertising difficult, especially when trying to appease constituencies as disparate as the Navajo Nation, Prescott and Casa Grande. Candidates often focus on Yavapai County, which is heavily populated and largely conservative.
Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district 154,000 to 133,000. But there are also nearly 111,000 registered independents who have leaned toward the GOP in the past. Republican Rick Renzi held the seat for six years before his 2008 retirement.
Anti-incumbent and anti-establishment sentiment is prevalent across Arizona, and most candidates in the district are running as political outsiders.
Mehta, who has split his time between his campaign and the heart center he runs in Show Low, said he wants to bring America back to the days of “true citizen legislators, people who have day jobs and have gainful employment outside of Congress.”
Beauchamp, who brands himself as the only constitutional conservative in the field – he’s an attorney who has taught junior high and high school students about the Constitution – said he’s a political outsider who raised nearly all of his money from people who live in the district. He chided his opponents for relying on special interests for fundraising, and singled out Gosar in particular for raising the majority of his campaign cash from a single interest group outside the state.
“We elect the people who raise the most money and run the most commercials,” said Beauchamp, who raised more than $120,000, less than Bowers, Gosar and Hay. “I combat that by exactly what I was doing yesterday … I spent all day driving throughout the district and doing meet-and-greets in people’s living rooms.”
But running as an outsider candidate has its drawbacks.
Mehta said fundraising has been a challenge. He raised about $100,000, which paid for mailers and radio ads, but wasn’t enough to give him a lasting presence on television.
“On TV, we’re guarding our pennies fairly fiercely,” Mehta said.
On the flip side, the two candidates who have experience writing legislation and lobbying have embraced their political backgrounds.
The fact that the GOP field was made up mostly of newcomers prompted Hay to run again, she said. Hay said she decided to enter the race in May after she commissioned a poll that showed her beating Kirkpatrick by several points.
Hay kicked off her campaign by putting $100,000 of her own money into her war chest, and entered the final weeks of the race with more cash on hand than her opponents. She said she has “sky high” name recognition from her 2008 run.
“I didn’t poll the primary at all,” Hay said. “I just figured I’m running against Ann Kirkpatrick.”
In addition to her background as a mining lobbyist, Hay said she’s been on the conservative side of numerous political fights, opposing new environmental regulations and gay marriage and pushing for the 1992 ballot measure that required a two-thirds vote for the Legislature to raise taxes.
Bowers has embraced his experience as an elected official. Hay may have been active in political causes during her career, Bowers said, but he’s the only one who’s ever voted on a bill and “been inside the bubble when everything’s on the line.”
The former Senate president and lobbyist for the Arizona Rock Products Association said no clear frontrunner has emerged in the sprawling, diverse district, and with the race wide open, voters are being more discriminating about their candidates.
“You can choose a rookie or you can choose experience,” said Bowers, who spent nine years in the Legislature.
Gosar’s polling lead is disputed, but his fundraising lead isn’t. Gosar and Hay have aired television commercials across the district, a luxury available to few other candidates. Hay hasn’t raised much more than Beauchamp, Bowers and Mehta, but has more cash on hand than any Republican in the race. Three candidates — Joe Jaraczewski, Jon Jensen and Thomas Zaleski — have raised less than $20,000 apiece.
Gosar has raised more than $415,000, nearly all of it from dentists across the country, and the American Dental Association’s political action committee spent $10,000 on his campaign as well.
Gosar, though, is taking heat for what some call a negative campaign against Hay. Beauchamp said Gosar is being hypocritical for funding his campaign through a special interest while criticizing Hay for being a lobbyist.
A recent mailer criticized Hay for her work as a lobbyist, her 16-point loss to Kirkpatrick in 2008, and especially for her home in Scottsdale. Hay said Gosar’s accusation that her “real home” is outside the district is untrue. She said she spends most of her time at her primary residence in Munds Park when the Legislature is not in session, and stays in Scottsdale during the session.
While Republicans try to gain an edge by attacking each other, Kirkpatrick has continued to add to a sizeable war chest.
She has raised more than $1.4 million and still has nearly $870,000 cash on hand. Money from political action committees accounted for $635,000, including tens of thousands of dollars from unions and other Democratic politicians. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee earmarked thousands of dollars for Kirkpatrick and is expected to play a major role as Kirkpatrick tries to hold onto the seat that gave Democrats the majority of Arizona’s congressional delegation in 2008.
Kirkpatrick campaign manager Michael Frias said the congresswoman’s vulnerability in November has been exaggerated by the Republican candidates. He said district residents appreciate her willingness to buck her own party when it’s in her constituents’ best interests.
“At times it puts us at odds with the Democratic Party,” Frias said. “With a district this diverse, she knows she has to make calls based on what’s the best interest of the district.”
Bradley Beauchamp*: $121,498
Cash on hand: $54,515
*Did not file report for July 1-Aug.4
Russell Bowers: $153,505
Cash on hand: $10,446
Paul Gosar: $414,486
Cash on hand: $49,908
Sydney Hay: $199,422
Cash on hand: $116,871
Joe Jaraczewski: $10,336
Cash on hand: $2,036
Jon Jensen: $16,087
Cash on hand: $0
Steve Mehta: $101,543
Cash on hand: $2,587
Thomas Zaleski: $12,266
Cash on hand: $716
Ann Kirkpatrick: $1,427,155
Cash on hand: $869,620