The three Democratic members of the U.S. House won Arizona’s 1st, 5th and 8th congressional districts during banner years for their party, taking seats that had long been held by the GOP. And with President Obama and the Democratic-led Congress sporting woefully low approval ratings, Republicans hope 2010 is the year to take back what they consider their territory.
Within three days of the primary, the conservative group Americans for Propserity released television ads targeting Giffords, Kirkpatrick and Mitchell. The National Republican Congressional Committee ran an ad against Giffords in March as well.
But winning back the seats that gave Democrats the majority in the state’s congressional delegation may not be a matter of simply riding the expected Republican wave.
All three Democrats are vulnerable and face a grim political climate. But they also have advantages that will make them hard to dethrone, even with Republicans expected to make major gains in the coming midterm election nationwide, political insiders say.
Giffords is a fundraising machine with nearly $2 million in the bank, and a Republican primary upset gave her an opponent whom Democrats believe is more beatable than the deposed frontrunner.
Kirkpatrick has made hard turns toward the center in defiance of her party’s leadership, and spent the past two years building support in her sprawling district.
Mitchell is a Tempe institution with a moderate political platform that appeals to voters in the overwhelmingly Republican district.
To hold onto their hard-won seats, the three will have to dodge Republican efforts to tie them to unpopular colleagues in Washington, D.C., especially Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. All three voted for Obama’s signature health care bill and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the federal stimulus, and the GOP is counting on voter hostility to those bills to weigh down the three Democrats.
Privately, Democrats acknowledge the need for Giffords, Kirkpatrick and Mitchell to distance themselves from Obama, Pelosi and the Democratic Congress as a whole. They must get voters to view them as individuals who stand out from the pack, as opposed to three simple cogs in a larger Democratic machine.
“They’ll run against Obama,” pollster Bruce Merrill said of the Republicans. “It’s tough, but it’s (the Democrats’) responsibility to tell people what they have done for their district.”
Of the three, many view Kirkpatrick as the most vulnerable, by default if nothing else. Democrats have a voter registration edge in the northern Arizona-based 1st Congressional District, but independents make up nearly a third of the electorate, and they’ve shown a strong tendency to lean Republican in the past.
Kirkpatrick’s Republican opponent, Flagstaff dentist Paul Gosar, was an adept fundraiser during his eight-way primary race, pulling in about $415,000. And most expect to the National Republican Congressional Committee to take a strong interest in the race as well.
“I consider that race to be a true toss-up,” said consultant Sean McCaffrey, a former executive director of the Arizona Republican Party. “She hasn’t solidified her base in the district, and it’s one in which the national Republican Party, the state Republican Party and all the way down to the county parties … are unified in their message that it’s time to win back that district. I think all three are vulnerable, but she certainly has a big political target painted all over her district.”
Chris Baker, owner the conservative consulting firm Blue Point LLC, said Kirkpatrick won the open seat in 2008 through the good fortune of a landslide Democratic year. But without that trend working in her favor, he said, she’s not a strong candidate.
Between the pro-Republican climate that’s dominating the election cycle, Gosar’s strengths and the image problems Kirkpatrick suffered when she walked out on a raucus town hall meeting in 2009, the first-term Democrat is in trouble, Baker said.
“I think a lot people would argue … she’s had a tougher time adjusting to Congress than perhaps some of the other Democrat congressmen,” Baker said. “The town hall incident, I think, will probably come back to haunt her in TV ads.”
Perhaps no Democratic gain has irked Republicans more than Mitchell’s win over Republican J.D. Hayworth in 2006. Arizona’s 5th Congressional District is the most conservative of the three, and Republicans are optimistic that without the Democratic waves of the past two campaign cycles — or the ties to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff that helped sink Hayworth — former Maricopa County Treasurer David Schweikert can take Mitchell down.
Mitchell, however, is one of the more conservative Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives. A campaign spokeswoman noted that he voted against the 2009 “cap-and-trade” bill and has opposed numerous Democratic budgets.
In addition, Mitchell has deep roots in his district that endear him to even many conservative voters. The grandfatherly congressman taught history at Tempe High School before he became mayor, and a statue of him towers in front of Tempe City Hall.
“The danger for a Democrat in this year is that their brand, so to speak, gets subsumed within the national Democratic brand. It’s hard to do that with a guy who has a 40-foot statue of himself in front of City Hall,” said lobbyist David Waid, a former chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party.
Schweikert has plenty of advantages, though. Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by nearly 40,000 in the Tempe- and Scottsdale-based district, and Schweikert has more than $200,000 on hand as he heads into the general election.
Baker, a consultant for Schweikert in 2008 and 2010, said the former county treasurer is in a good position. Schweikert ran a strong campaign in 2008, Baker said, and without the anti-Republican climate that permeated the two elections, he may be able to avenge his 10-point loss to Mitchell.
“The wind’s at (Republicans’) backs, not at their faces anymore,” Baker said.
Many Republicans, however, are expecting a tough fight from Mitchell. GOP consultant Chad Willems, who owns the conservative Summit Consulting Group, said Mitchell is vulnerable, but Schweikert has to run a better general election campaign than he did in 2008.
“I think he’s got to run a (real) general election campaign,” Willems said. “Two years ago he ran basically two primary campaigns. … The guns-and-babies argument has to turn into more bread-and-butter stuff.”
Giffords has long been viewed as the strongest of the three. Her fundraising has been tremendous, and despite a vote for the American Clean Energy and Security Act, informally known as the cap-and-trade bill, she has a relatively moderate voting record.
But many Democrats still breathed a lot easier when Jesse Kelly pulled off a surprise win over establishment favorite Jonathan Paton in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District Republican primary. Kelly, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who ran with a wealth of tea party support, was the more outwardly conservative of the two candidates.
Democrats believe Giffords’ moderate politics will have far more appeal than Kelly’s tea party conservativism, and are suddenly a lot more confident about her chances.
“Jesse Kelly, he is a teabagger,” said Democratic consultant Barry Dill, of the firm FirstStrategic. “He won’t have any money, and Gabby’s got $2.5 million. She ought to be in great shape.”
Republican consultant Chip Scutari said he expects the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) to pour resources into Arizona’s 1st and 5th congressional districts, but doesn’t think it will put nearly as high a priority on Giffords’ race now that Paton is out of the picture. After the Aug. 24 primary, he said, Giffords was “popping the champaign.”
“I would imagine the national Republican Party probably won’t play in that district,” Scutari said.
Baker isn’t so sure, however. Giffords is still vulnerable, Republicans still have an 18,000 voter edge over Democrats in the district, and he thinks Kelly, who raised about $568,000 for the primary, will fare better than people are predicting in the wake of his upset.
“If they smell blood in the water, they’ll be in eight,” Baker said of the NRCC. “I think (Kelly) earned enough respect … that they’ll take him seriously.”
And regardless of whatever strengths Giffords, Kirkpatrick and Mitchell bring to their campaigns, Baker said, 2010 is still a Republican year. Much like 1994 for the GOP, and 2006 and 2008 for Democrats, he said, the national mood will dictate many of the outcomes.
“I don’t want to oversimplify the situation, but you look at polls across the country … this is a nationalized election,” Baker said.