Kirkpatrick to run for U.S. Senate vs. John McCain

U.S. Sen. John McCain. Photo by Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services

U.S. Sen. John McCain. Photo by Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- A three-term U.S. representative from Flagstaff hopes to do what Arizona Democrats have been unable for do since 1982: Sideline John McCain.

In announcing her bid Tuesday for the Senate, Ann Kirkpatrick hammered on her local rural roots as a lifelong Arizona resident. Her video included pictures of her with her family and small business.

But it's the boots she bought with her waitressing tips that are likely to take center stage in the race. Those same boots became a symbol in her last campaign as Republicans sought to portray her as some sort of high-heeled Washington liberal.

Kirkpatrick, 65, was careful not to blast the 78-year-old McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, who was first elected to the House in 1982 and to the U.S. Senate four years later. Instead, she said, it's about giving voters what she thinks they want now.

"The state's changing,' she said. "I hear from Arizona voters who are ready for a choice in the next election.'

The chore now for Kirkpatrick is to take her narrow win in 2014 against Republican Andy Tobin in her rural district and translate that into statewide support.

Democrats hold a slight edge in her congressional district, making up close to 37 percent of the electorate, compared with less than 30 percent for Republicans. Independents and minor parties make up the balance.

By contrast, Democrats are only 28.5 percent of statewide registered voters, with Republicans at 34.2 percent.

But Kirkpatrick pointed out her current district already includes all or part of eight of the state's 15 counties. Her toughest test could be in Republican-rich Maricopa County.

And then there's the money angle.

At last count, McCain had more than $3.6 million cash on hand, versus less than $300,000 in Kirkpatrick's House reelection account. And as the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee McCain has a fundraising edge.

Kirkpatrick conceded McCain will have the money advantage, not only from his own account but the likelihood of outside groups waging their own independent efforts for him or against her.

"I'm confident will have raise the resources we need,' she said, refusing to set a fundraising goal. But Kirkpatrick also made it clear she hopes to make up for any shortfall with retail politicking, going to every event she can.

McCain also has something else that Kirkpatrick may not: a likely primary on his hands.

State Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, has been drumming up support in an exploratory committee. She has strong backing from fiscally conservative elements in the GOP.

Matt Salmon and David Schweikert, incumbent members of the state's congressional delegation, also have been mentioned as possible primary foes.

Arizona Republican Party Chairman Robert Graham said he's always worried about a divisive primary.

"If our candidates are beating the lights out of each other in a primary and they're using language or a narrative that is not good, as to painting a person into a corner or what have you, when they go into a general election any of that baggage is harmful,' he said. "There's no question about that.'

But Graham said it's not fatal, as last year's gubernatorial primary proved.

"They waled on each other pretty good,' Graham said. But he said that also resulted in news coverage which helped voters define each of the candidates, coverage he said that ultimately helped Doug Ducey trounce Democrat Fred DuVal.

What it also did, Graham said, is give Ducey the "seasoning' he needed for debates and the general election campaign, something that DuVal, unopposed in the primary, did not have.

Kirkpatrick could get some of that, too -- and possibly even from DuVal who has been mentioned as someone who could go up against McCain. Also possibly in the running could be Kyrsten Sinema who will be finishing her second term in the U.S. House, and Richard Carmona who lost his Senate race in 2012 to Jeff Flake.

Republicans hope to paint Kirkpatrick with the brush of her support for the Affordable Care Act.

She has never shied away from ObamaCare, with her district having a high percentage of uninsured. And Kirkpatrick already has announced her backing of Hillary Clinton for president.

But the defining issue in 2016 could end up being the war in Iraq -- and public sentiment of how that is going.

McCain opposed total withdrawal and continues to push to send U.S. troops back in. By contrast, Kirkpatrick said as long ago has her 2008 campaign that "it is time for the Iraqi government to start taking for responsibility for their own country.'

Her position now, with the emergence of the Islamic State, is a bit more nuanced

"ISIS represents a real clear threat to our national interest,' she said. Kirkpatrick said she is in favor of U.S. airstrikes and "building a coalition to destroy ISIS.'

"But I am leery of deploying U.S. ground troops,' she said, saying if the president and top military officials believe they are necessary they should "consult with Congress.'

How their positions play with the electorate could depend on how the war is going next year. But Kirkpatrick said she believes the American public is growing weary with the conflict.

She also has proven battle tested.

Kirkpatrick was ousted from her House seat in the 2010 race by Paul Gosar. But after congressional lines were redrawn, Gosar chose a different district. That paved the way for her to return to Congress by defeating Republican Jonathan Paton.

Since then she has worked across the aisle with Gosar, cosponsoring legislation ranging from building Interstate 11 between Phoenix and Las Vegas to a federal land exchange to pave the way for Resolution Copper mining project near Superior.

Kirkpatrick also was one of the survivors of the 2014 political massacre that resulted in Democrats losing control of the U.S. House.

But McCain has consistently done well, and not only in his own congressional races. While he lost his 2008 presidential bid, he outpolled Barack Obama statewide by about 195,000 votes out of 2.3 million cast.

Kirkpatrick said her decision has nothing to do with the possibility the U.S. Supreme Court could void the current congressional lines, a move that would free the Republican-controlled Legislature to recraft her district to undermine her reelection bid.

Kirkpatrick's decision has a domino effect, with an open seat in CD 1 creating a political vacuum.

Tobin, her 2014 foe, already had expressed interest in another run at the seat even before she opted to go for the Senate.

But Tobin also wants to see what the U.S. Supreme Court decides in the lawsuit filed by the Arizona Legislature which is challenging the authority of the Independent Redistricting Commission to draw congressional lines. If the court decides against the commission, that frees the Republican-controlled Legislature to draw lines more favorable to GOP candidates.

Potentially more significant for Tobin is whether the new lines actually will include him in the district. A ruling is expected by the end of June.

Gary Kiehne who lost to Tobin in the GOP primary already had announced his bid for 2016. And Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu also could be a contender, though he said it's too early to make a decision.

"I will be watching closely,' he said, what with the unusual confluence of a "rarely open congressional seat' and the possibility of a district more favorable to Republicans.

On the Democrat side, state Rep. Catherine Miranda staked her claim by forming an exploratory committee, just hours after Kirkpatrick's own announcement.

Miranda actually lives in Phoenix, far from CD 1.

There is no legal requirement for members of Congress to live in their House districts. But press aide Alonso Salas said she will move to the district if she opts to run.

Miranda, however, could find significant resistance, especially after her decision to back Ducey over DuVal in last year's gubernatorial race.

And Coconino County Supervisor Liz Archuleta also could have eyes on the seat.

The GOP's Graham conceded the Democrat voter registration edge in the district -- assuming the lines are not redrawn. But he said the party "learned a lot' from its 2014 defeat.

On Twitter: @azcapmedia

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