In an announcement that stunned Arizona’s political world, Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick said she will challenge U.S. Sen. John McCain, giving the Democrats the strongest candidate they’ve ever run against the veteran senator.
The three-term congresswoman from Arizona’s sprawling 1st Congressional District announced her candidacy Monday morning, telling supporters in an email, “I’m in for Senate.” In a video posted on her new U.S. Senate campaign website, the Arizona native touted her rural roots, saying she’ll fight for her state.
I love this state. I’ve lived my whole life here,” she said in the video. “In Congress, I’ve been working hard to put Arizona first, help create a strong, diverse economy, improve education, look out for Arizona’s farms, ranches and natural beauty, take care of our veterans, pay down our debt, protect Social Security and Medicare, and make Washington play by the same rules as everyone else.”
The announcement answers a long-running question of who, if anyone, the Democrats would run against McCain as he seeks a sixth term. With the Legislature preparing for possible redistricting of congressional map, many viewed Kirkpatrick’s Democratic colleague, Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema, as a possibility. But Kirkpatrick’s announcement caught the political world by surprise.
Sources said Kirkpatrick didn’t inform people of her decision until Monday. Even members of Arizona’s congressional delegation were caught off-guard.
Kirkpatrick represents a highly competitive district and has won tough races before. After losing her first re-election in 2010, she came back in 2012 and won a hard-fought race that, even going into Election Day, many expected her to lose to Republican nominee Jonathan Paton. She again fought off a serious challenge in 2014, holding on in a Republican wave year and beating former Arizona House Speaker Andy Tobin in one of the most expensive U.S. House races in the country.
She has also proven herself a strong fundraiser, raising $3.4 million for her re-election last year. As of the end of March, Kirkpatrick’s campaign had about $300,000 on hand.
But Kirkpatrick faces an uphill battle against McCain. The five-term incumbent has never had a serious Democratic challenger in a U.S. Senate race.
Kirkpatrick acknowledged that she had a tough fight ahead of her.
“I respect John McCain’s service to our nation. I just believe our state’s changing. Arizonans should have a real choice who they send to the United States Senate,” Kirkpatrick said in the video. “I’m not naïve. I know that Washington insiders are already trying to dig up dirt. But having grown up here, a little mud on my boots is part of life.”
Other Democrats conceded that Kirkpatrick has an uphill climb against McCain, a 30-year incumbent and former Republican presidential nominee. But many saw cause for optimism as well.
In 2012, Kirkpatrick defied predictions and won in a district that GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried. Last year, she survived the onslaught of a nationwide Republican wave, winning by about five percentage points in an election where Republicans won every statewide seat in Arizona.
Andy Barr, a Democratic campaign consultant, said Kirkpatrick already has to run what is practically a statewide race every year because of the sheer size of CD1. She campaigns heavily across a wide swatch of territory and runs multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns in the Phoenix and Tucson media markets.
“Every time she runs, people sort of discount her. They think she’s going to lose. And she always outperforms expectations,” Barr said. “I don’t think they’re in any denial that it’s a tough climb. But for anyone, just the races she’s run, the team she has, the infrastructure they already have put in place, that’s pretty strong.”
David Waid, a Democratic campaign consultant, said Kirkpatrick should also benefit from running during a presidential election, which raises voter turnout and attracts many lower-efficacy voters who lean Democratic.
“She couldn’t have picked a better year to do this,” Waid said.
Kirkpatrick’s challenge also comes at a time when some believe McCain is more vulnerable than usual. In an early May poll, Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm based in North Carolina, 50 percent of respondents had an unfavorable opinion of McCain’s job performance, compared to 41 percent who approved.
However, that poll also showed McCain winning a hypothetical matchup with Kirkpatrick, though not by a wide margin. McCain took 42 percent of the vote to Kirkpatrick’s 36 percent, with 23 percent undecided. The poll had a 4-percent margin of error.
Republicans were still confident that McCain would defeat Kirkpatrick. He has extraordinarily high name identification, has raised more than $3.6 million for his re-election and is expected to raise plenty more. He’s also known as a fierce campaigner who never takes a challenge for granted.
“She has very much of an uphill fight to prove herself as a credible candidate to run against McCain,” said Nathan Sproul, a Republican campaign consultant.
Brian Murray, another GOP consultant, emphasized that Kirkpatrick is still a Democrat in a Republican state. As last year’s election showed, when the GOP swept Arizona’s statewide offices, Democrats still have many “fundamental flaws” that make it extremely difficult for them to win statewide, he said.
Murray predicted that McCain would defeat Kirkpatrick by double digits.
“She might be the only real opponent he’s had in a really long time. But I still think she has zero chance,” Murray said.
McCain had little response to the announcement. In an email, spokesman Brian Rogers said, “Senator McCain welcomes Congresswoman Kirkpatrick to the race, and looks forward to running a vigorous campaign no matter who the Democratic nominee is.”
The National Republican Senatorial Committee was far more vocal, providing a glimpse into the attacks Kirkpatrick will face with a list of what they called her “greatest hits.” Among the GOP’s knocks against Kirkpatrick were her 2010 vote for the Affordable Care Act, her support for President Obama and U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and the hiring of campaign staff to taxpayer-funded jobs after losing her first re-election in 2010.
In previous campaigns, Republicans have also repeatedly run ads featuring footage of her walking out of a meet-and-greet with angry constituents at a grocery store during her first term in office.
While the buzz surrounding Kirkpatrick’s candidacy focused on her chances against McCain, it’s possible that she’ll face a different Republican nominee. State Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, is exploring a GOP primary challenge against him, hoping to potentially exploit longtime animosity toward the senior senator by grassroots conservatives. Many conservatives still hope that Congressman Matt Salmon will run against McCain as well, which would present him with a far more serious challenge.
Depending on the outcome of a pending U.S. Supreme Court case, a U.S. Senate race may be Kirkpatrick’s best move.
The Arizona Legislature sued the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, arguing that only state legislatures are authorized by the Constitution to draw congressional districts. If the GOP-controlled Legislature wins, one of its top priorities is expected to be drawing Kirkpatrick into a Republican district.
But several Democrats said they did not believe Kirkpatrick’s decision was in any way related to the possibility that she’ll be drawn into a Republican district.
“I think she wanted to do it. And if you want to do it, it makes sense to just jump in and do it,” Barr said. “If she had decided that this was the office she wanted to run for, I don’t know why it made sense for her to wait any longer.”
Kirkpatrick appears to have been contemplating a U.S. Senate race for some time. Her new campaign website, www.kirkpatrickforsenate.com, was registered in November, nearly two weeks after the election.
It is unknown what impact Kirkpatrick’s decision will have on another possible Democratic aspirant for the U.S. Senate. Many observers believe Kyrsten Sinema planned to run for the seat if the Legislature gets an opportunity to redraw Arizona’s congressional districts, and some questioned whether Kirkpatrick’s candidacy would deter her from those plans. A spokeswoman for Sinema did not respond to a request for comment.
Republican political consultant Stan Barnes said Kirkpatrick is the underdog but McCain cannot underestimate her.
“And he won’t,” Barnes said.
“Campaigning is hard and she is battle-hardened,” Barnes said, adding that Kirkpatrick also has a solid reputation in Washington, D.C. as well as in Democratic circles. That will help since she’ll need a unified Democratic front, Barnes said.
“She’s an attractive candidate from the center-left side of the political spectrum,” the consultant added.
In order to win, Kirkpatrick must run a campaign that reflects the harsh reality that she’s the underdog, Barnes said, adding that she also needs to raise at least $10 million. “She’s got to live on a bus from Page to Patagonia, from Ehrenberg to Alpine,” he said.
-Luige del Puerto contributed to this report.