When the federal government shut down due to a congressional impasse over repealing or delaying the Affordable Care Act, Arizona’s three targeted Democrats in Congress took vastly different approaches to their votes on the health care law.
U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick of Flagstaff stuck with Democratic leadership and voted against any attempt to partially fund the government or delay the law. Reps. Ron Barber of Tucson and Kyrsten Sinema of Phoenix joined with Republicans to support a piecemeal approach to funding the federal government and to slow the implementation of portions of the law.
Republicans consider Kirkpatrick’s almost unwavering support of the law her biggest weakness in the upcoming election, and already are hammering her with attack ads claiming she shut down the government — including her own district’s Grand Canyon National Park — rather than compromise on Obamacare.
When Barber and Sinema repeatedly sided with Republicans, it outraged some progressive Democrats, whose volunteer time and campaign contributions they desperately need in order to turn out Democratic voters in their Republican-leaning districts, especially in a mid-term election year.
All three Democrats will be under heavy fire from Republicans in the 2014 election. The National Republican Congressional Committee calls Barber and Kirkpatrick among the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents anywhere in the country.
Lawmakers took dozens of votes over the 17-day shutdown, many of them polarizing and defining. And the political repercussions of the strategies that the three Democrats employed will reverberate through the 2014 election in the three Arizona congressional races where every vote will count.
When Republicans refused to pass a budget package without compromises to the Affordable Care Act, Sinema and Barber were among a handful of Democrats who banded with Republicans to pass a budget that delayed the individual mandate portion of the law, though the Senate warned they wouldn’t approve the measure. That led to the shutdown.
Tucson Democrat Karen Clifton was outraged that the two did not stand by the president and support his signature health care law. Clifton has worked on numerous Democratic campaigns over the years including those of former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (though Giffords was too conservative for Clifton’s taste). She supported Barber’s primary opponent last year, but when the general election came around, she did her duty as a Democrat and voted for Barber.
But after the way he handled the Obamacare and shutdown votes, she can’t justify voting for him.
“I definitely won’t volunteer for him. I can’t vote for Martha McSally, but for the first time in my life I may choose not to vote. I just can’t see myself putting an ‘X’ next to Ron Barber’s name,” she said.
Clifton said many of her Democratic friends, even those more moderate than she is, have a similar feeling. She believes the votes were designed to gain support from Republicans at the cost of Democratic values and Democratic votes.
“I think it was a political move, and I think it will backfire. Republicans will vote for McSally and Democrats will stay home, like me,” Clifton said.
Like many, Phoenix Democrat Stephen Grange saw the votes Barber and Sinema took during the shutdown to pass a piecemeal budget as caving to the GOP at a critical moment when Democrats had the Republicans against the ropes. He views the votes as giving more power to Republicans and rewarding them for their irresponsible government shutdown by offering voters the false impression that both sides were to blame.
“It absolutely infuriated me that (Sinema and Barber) gave cover to the Republicans so Republicans could say it was a bipartisan shutdown. It wasn’t — or at least it shouldn’t have been,” Grange said.
Both supported numerous resolutions that would have re-opened critical government entities such as the continuing veterans’ benefits, the national parks and museums, and border security.
But it was more than just the piecemeal budget. Both supported a measure that would have pushed the start date for the individual insurance mandate back a year, and after the shutdown, both supported a measure that would have allowed insurers to continue to offer what the Affordable Care Act deems substandard health care plans.
Still our guys
By backing the GOP plans that undermined President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, Sinema and Barber drew the ire of even those who had supported them in past elections.
Former Pima County Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Rogers has been a vocal critic of Barber and Sinema’s votes during the shutdown, but in the end, he doesn’t think it will have a seriously adverse effect on Democratic voter turnout in their races.
“There have been people saying (they won’t volunteer for Barber), and I’m one of the people who has said it could hurt him with Democrats. But I think as we get closer to the election and it becomes clearly defined as Ron Barber or Martha McSally… people will start to realize this guy is our guy,” Rogers said.
Barber’s CD2 is a moderate district with less than 1-percentage point Republican voter registration advantage, and Rogers pointed back down the line of representatives from the area, such as Democrat Giffords, Republican Jim Kolbe and Democrat Mo Udall, who were all socially moderate and fiscally conservative. Democrats who want to elect a far-left Democrat there just aren’t seeing reality, he said.
“This is not a district that is ever going to elect a Raul Grijalva. A traditional liberal Democrat is not going to win that district, just like an extreme Republican is never going to win the district,” Rogers said.
Sinema’s CD9 has very similar voter registration numbers, and Republicans hold a voter registration advantage of nearly 2.5-percentage points.
Rogers noted that both Barber and Sinema share a campaign consultant and said he thinks the votes were calculated political moves by the two Democrats to shore up support from moderate Republicans and independent voters. And he thinks it will work.
“(Barber) has kind of earned the support of some of the more moderate voters who may have voted for Kolbe in the past, and Giffords,” he said.
Besides, Rogers noted, no real harm was done — all the measures were dead on arrival in the Senate.
“The votes were mostly symbolic in nature, but that symbolism irritated a lot of people, including myself,” Rogers said.
Dan O’Neal, state coordinator for Progressive Democrats of America, said when Barber and Sinema took the votes and sided with Republicans, some members of the progressive group were angry and threatened not to support the two in the 2014 election. Instead, they planned to focus on volunteering for other Democratic candidates.
“Some people were dissatisfied with them and said, ‘I’m not going to work for them, (or) put my energy in their campaigns, I’m going to work harder on this other (campaign) instead’,” he said.
But the overall goal of the Progressive Democrats of America is to promote unity within the party while pushing Democrats to the political left, and O’Neal said most of the members hope the votes are just a hiccup in an otherwise long and fruitful relationship.
In the meantime, he is willing to cut the two freshman representatives some slack, considering their seats are extremely vulnerable to Republicans in the upcoming election, and any Democrat is better than a Republican.
“We’re all for unity and getting everybody on board and taking on the Tea Party and right wing attacks that are more serious. But we (Democrats) are family and within the family, we have some vigorous discussion and debate,” he said.
Republicans have gone through a cleansing of the party in recent years, with activists ousting many of the party’s more moderate candidates. But Democrats, especially in Republican-controlled Arizona, have mostly accepted those who cross the aisle in their votes, even on big issues such as Obamacare and the government shutdown.
“The Republican Party is imploding from the two wings fighting, so I don’t want to see that happen (with Democrats),” O’Neal said.
“Unlike the Republicans in their primaries, we realize all of our candidates are not perfect and they’re not going to be perfectly reflective of some of the values we have, but that imperfection is something we can ignore when looking at the bigger scheme of things,” Rogers said.
Support from the right
While the wayward votes may cost some support with the most progressive wing of the Democratic Party, they also shore up the candidates’ moderate credentials and bolster their image with independent voters, who will be key to any re-election campaign in 2014.
Joanne Daley is a registered independent who lives in Sierra Vista, in Barber’s district, who calls herself a “Tea Party conservative.”
But when Barber voted for a bill making continuing appropriations for death gratuities and related survivor benefits for survivors of deceased military members, she thanked him on his Facebook page, saying the people of CD2 stood behind him on the issue and he was doing the right thing by voting for a budget in a piecemeal fashion.
Daley said the way Barber handled his shutdown votes impressed on her that he’s his own man who doesn’t always follow Democratic leadership. She would consider voting for him in the 2014 election because of those votes and a few others where he has joined with Republicans.
It also helps Barber’s cause that McSally, who is presumed to be the GOP nominee, has so far declined to say how she would have voted on many issues of the day, including the federal shutdown, Daley said.
“If the election were today, based on what Ron Barber and what I know about Martha McSally, it would be Ron Barber hands down… And I’m not the only conservative who thinks that. I hear that from a lot of people, ‘He may be a Democrat, but I agree with him on this, this, and this.’ And sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know,” Daley said.
In some ways, the strategies employed by the three Democrats reflect the demographics of their vastly different districts.
While both Barber and Sinema are in Republican-leaning political districts, Kirkpatrick’s CD1 has a more than 7-percentage point Democratic voter registration advantage, though even Democrats in the rural district tend to have a slight conservative bent.
The district also has the lowest percentage of registered independents of the three districts. Many Democrats see motivating the base and increasing voter turnout as the key to winning.
Despite being a top target of Republicans nationally in 2014, Kirkpatrick remained true blue and stuck with Democratic leadership on every key vote during the shutdown. Republicans have already latched onto her votes, and are casting her as Arizona’s own Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader who is a favorite target of the right.
Kirkpatrick was the only one of the three to actually vote for the Affordable Care Act in 2010, and she lost the 2010 election in the Republican wave that swept the country, largely as a pushback to the law. She returned in 2012 after the district lines were redrawn more favorably to Democrats, but Republicans think that if they beat her once on the issue, they can do it again.
But even Kirkpatrick eventually wavered on the issue. On Dec. 12, she introduced a bill that would provide retroactive insurance coverage for people who tried to enroll in a health plan, but were unable to do so because of the flawed HealthCare.gov website.
“My bill offers a common-sense fix to ensure that people in Arizona’s District One and across the country aren’t penalized for a faulty website. We need to make sure that folks who sought to enroll are covered,” Kirkpatrick said in a statement announcing her introduction of the bill.
Sinema and Barber are cosponsors of the legislation.