Students at the Yavapai College gunsmithing school outside Prescott momentarily looked away from the barrels, actions and butt stocks to greet U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick as she visited their classroom during a campaign stop Oct. 4.
The students used rags to wipe away metallic dust and grease before reaching out to shake hands with Kirkpatrick, who was dressed appropriately in a white button-down shirt and Western-style jeans.
Kirkpatrick, a Democrat who is seeking a second term as the representative from Arizona’s 1st Congressional District, comfortably picked up the bolt-action rifle one student had been fine-tuning and complimented his detailed work.
“What you guys are doing here really represents my district, with the gunsmithing, the engineering and the mining,” Kirkpatrick said while looking around the drably lit room.
A gunsmithing, mining and robotic engineering trade school might seem more like a Republican safe-zone, but for Kirkpatrick it symbolizes the sort of working-class moderates whose votes she will have to earn to keep her seat.
Kirkpatrick and her Republican opponent Paul Gosar have run a fairly tight race since the Aug. 24 primary, though most polls show the Gosar, a Flagstaff dentist, with a lead of up to 7 points.
Gosar has tried to label Kirkpatrick as out-of-touch with her district and as a rubber stamp for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He has focused his criticisms on Kirkpatrick’s votes to pass President Obama’s health care reform bill and the economic stimulus package, both of which are unpopular in the district.
But rather than running from those votes, Kirkpatrick has defended them.
On the campaign trail, Kirkpatrick has touted the benefits of the health care law and the stimulus, and she has promised to continue voting for the bills she thinks will help the economic situation of the voters in her district.
Kirkpatrick also points to her vote against the Democratic-sponsored cap-and-trade bill and her strong support of gun rights as further evidence of her independent nature. She characterizes it as rejecting the party’s ideals in favor of her own.
“I’ve always been an independent voice in my district,” she said. “We have a district that has four coal fire plants. That’s over 2,000 jobs. During a recession, we can’t afford to lose a single job.”
With recent polls showing a tight race, Kirkpatrick has spent the weeks leading up to the Nov. 2 election visiting locations like the Yavapai College to try to assure voters that she shares their interests and will vote with them in mind if they send her back for another term.
Her campaign activities reflect a calculated strategy to court moderate voters in a district that historically has leaned to the right even though Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by about 20,000.
Kirkpatrick, who is counting on Democrats to vote for her despite her independent streak, has gone out of her way to appeal to independents and moderate Republicans who disagree with Gosar’s conservative platform.
She even appeared at a Yavapai Tea Party candidate forum earlier this month, where she was booed several times while answering questions on stage.
But her willingness to appear in front of hostile crowds shows that Kirkpatrick is not reluctant to explain her decisions to her constituents. Last year, she was caught on video walking out of a town hall meeting in which residents of her district got a bit unruly and demanded an explanation for her vote on health care.
Bert Reyes, a Prescott resident who attended the Yavapai Tea Party forum, choked back tears as he listed his complaints about Kirkpatrick. First, he wanted answers regarding her vote on the health care law; second, he was upset that Kirkpatrick’s office didn’t respond.
“I’m sick and tired of this. I call and I e-mail and I don’t hear nothing back,” Reyes said. “I go to her office, and nobody’s there. Only when she wants to get re-elected does she put someone in her office.”
Kirkpatrick said she understands many voters were dissatisfied with her vote on the health care law, but said it’s important not to confuse policy disagreements with an unwillingness to listen. She said both the economic stimulus and the health care bill were good for her district.
“I am listening, but I had made up my own independent mind,” she said. “But in their minds, because I didn’t vote the way they wanted me to, I’m not listening to them.”
Kirkpatrick quickly points out Democrats’ standard list of benefits from the health care law — it allows young adults to stay on their parents’ health care plans, bans insurance companies from dropping coverage due to pre-existing conditions and prevents coverage caps. But she also explains the local benefits, including those that provide assistance in tribal areas.
“(It) re-authorized the Indian Health Services Act,” Kirkpatrick said, “which is something they’ve been fighting for for 10 years.”
Still, she acknowledges problems remain.
“I’ve said all along: It’s going to be 10 years before we get (health care legislation) right,” she said. “What I’ve told folks is that I want to keep working on this.”
Kirkpatrick also promised to do a better job of communicating with district residents.
“We know that we have to improve. We’re really dedicated to doing that,” she said. “It’s important to me that I hear from them.”
Gosar has criticized Kirkpatrick for voting with Pelosi 86 percent of the time, though Kirkpatrick looks at that statistic in different context.
“There are 435 members of Congress. If you rank as No. 1 that person most aligned with Nancy Pelosi, I’m 414th,” Kirkpatrick said. “There are Republicans who are more in line with Nancy Pelosi than I am.”
Kirkpatrick’s vote against cap-and-trade legislation has become the hallmark of her efforts to separate herself from unpopular congressional Democrats.
She tells voters that she meets on the campaign trail that she opposed cap-and-trade at the risk of upsetting her Democratic colleagues because she wanted to make sure any conservation efforts also advance economic goals.
She said the Four Forest Restoration Initiative is an example of what sort of legislation she prefers. The initiative created a partnership between government land managers and several timber companies in the White Mountains that spurred economic activity and safeguarded forests from catastrophic fires.