This is what you should know about who is running for Arizona’s CD 2.
Carly Henry, The Republic |

TUCSON — Democrats in the 2nd Congressional District have plenty of choices for their party’s next U.S. House nominee, but it really comes down to this in the Aug. 28 primary:

Do they play it safe or go for someone more like their most enthusiastic voters?

There are seven candidates to choose from on the Democratic side, but former U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick stands out.

The three-term congressional veteran and unsuccessful 2016 U.S. Senate nominee — transplanted from northern Arizona — is considered her party’s front-runner and she has the money and big-name endorsements to prove it. She also has a record and a moderate outlook to the right of many of her rivals.

As usual, the race for the 2nd Congressional District is one of the most important in the country. The district, which includes part of Tucson and Pima County as well as Cochise County, is almost evenly divided between registered Democrats and registered Republicans and has produced several epic races in recent years.

RELATED: What you need to know about candidates running in CD2

Even before Republican Martha McSally, the incumbent representative, decided to run for the U.S. Senate, Democrats circled this race on the congressional map as one to watch. 

In the final days before primary voting ends later this month, Democrats are settling on who they want in a nominee who is likely to be favored heading into November. As they do, the candidates are battling for the title of most committed to Democratic ideals.

“I’m the most progressive candidate in this race who has a track record of getting things done. That’s really what it all boils down to,” Kirkpatrick said in a written statement as different in tone as it is time from a 2010 congressional race in her former northeastern Arizona district.

Then, she played up her independence and interest in securing the border. These days, Kirkpatrick was booed at a Democratic forum last month because she didn’t support abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, as most of her challengers and many in the crowd wanted.

“Her drastic shift in geography parallels her drastic shift in policy statements and reversals and changes,” said Matt Heinz, the district’s 2016 Democratic nominee who is battling again for the chance to win back the seat for his party. “That is what southern Arizona voters are going to be focused on. Who has a consistent record on the issues we care most about?”

RELATED: 1-seat swing in Arizona could change Congress

After the forum, people swarmed Billy Kovacs, a candidate whose answers put him well to the left of Kirkpatrick. Others buzzed when former state lawmaker Bruce Wheeler thundered against President Donald Trump.

The Democratic scrum is southern Arizona’s version of a wider battle for the future of the party in the Trump era. Ahead of the primary, nonpartisan analysts see the district favoring Democrats this fall.

History favors Democrats

In 2016, voters here chose Democrat Hillary Clinton over Trump by 5 percentage points on the same night they sent McSally back to Washington for a second term by a comfortable 14 percentage points over Heinz. It was one of the biggest divergent results in the country.

Recent history suggests Democrats have the upper hand in this GOP-held Clinton district.

It’s been 28 years since the president’s party won an open House seat held by his party in a district that last voted for the other party’s presidential nominee. In at least 20 cases since then, the president’s party has lost every time.

RELATED: AZ Democrats have big money edge over GOP

If Democrats have an advantage, it’s unclear how badly voters want Kirkpatrick.

She has raised the most money from Tucson among the seven Democratic candidates and she has been seen as the favorite in polling for months. At the same time, Lea Marquez Peterson, who is seeking the Republican nomination, has easily outraised Kirkpatrick in Tucson.

In 2016, when Heinz flopped with voters in the 2nd District, Kirkpatrick also fared poorly in her bid to oust U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. McCain beat Kirkpatrick in the 2nd District, as well as the 1st Congressional District that Kirkpatrick represented at the time.

Jeff Barr, a Tucson architect, said he’s impressed with Kovacs and Wheeler, whose views seem authentic and passionate to him. Even so, he said he’s supporting Heinz because he doesn’t think Kovacs or Wheeler can win and he doesn’t want Kirkpatrick.

“Ann Kirkpatrick doesn’t represent the core ideas of the Democratic Party,” Barr, 61, said. “I really want that seat to go back to the Democratic side of the aisle.”

Barr said he’s bothered by Kirkpatrick’s newness to Tucson, but he’s most troubled by what he sees as her willingness to bend on issues such as gun control.

“I’m not anti-gun. I’m just anti-gun-in-any-hands,” said Barr, who said he has been a member of the National Rifle Association. “She’s pandered to the NRA before and, if it’s expedient, she would do it again.”

Connie Nine, a Tucson retiree, said Tuesday she is still undecided between Wheeler and Mary Matiella, who has the endorsement of U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, who represents a contiguous district. She likes Kirkpatrick, but isn’t happy about her response to attacks by Heinz.

Regardless, Nine said, whoever wins the nomination will have her vote in November.


Show Thumbnails

Show Captions

A story with many turns

Kirkpatrick has been on an odyssey the past 10 years. In 2008, she won a congressional race for the 1st District representing northeastern Arizona.

Two years later, she lost that seat, in large part because of her support for the Affordable Care Act. In 2012, she narrowly won back that district by defeating Jonathan Paton, a Tucson-area Republican whom she ripped for running in northern Arizona.

“What I hear from folks is they want somebody who lives with them, who understands them, who has spent a lifetime of service within the district,” she said in a 2012 interview with The Arizona Republic. “The fact that Jonathan never has and that he is from Tucson is not sitting well with people.”

RELATED: Kirkpatrick attracts money from Nancy Pelosi

She won again in 2014, then lost the Senate race to McCain in 2016. Now, it is Kirkpatrick running in a new area that she says is familiar territory.

“I have a long history in Tucson. I came down here right out of high school, did my undergraduate degree here at the University of Arizona, taught school in Tucson,” she said. “While I was in law school, I clerked in the Pima County Attorney’s Office. … I got married here and had my first daughter here. People understand that. It hasn’t been an issue.”

Still, it hasn’t been entirely smooth.

At a Democratic forum in February, Kirkpatrick seemed to stop herself from raising a hand to indicate she would support Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for another term as House speaker. Her staff later told the Tucson Sentinel she misunderstood the question.

That mistake came five months after Kirkpatrick reported that her campaign took money from Pelosi and other senior leaders of the Democratic establishment. 

Heinz funded an embarrassing but otherwise unsuccessful legal challenge that claimed Kirkpatrick didn’t live in the district. Ironically, Heinz doesn’t live in the district and Matiella and Wheeler kicked off their campaigns at events in the neighboring 3rd Congressional District.

RELATED: Judge: Ann Kirkpatrick can appear on ballot

Heinz and Kirkpatrick have taken turns hitting the other over several issues, but especially guns and support from the NRA.

Heinz points to Kirkpatrick touting an “A” rating from the NRA in her 2010 campaign. Kirkpatrick says she changed her views on gun control after the 2011 shooting near Tucson that killed six people and wounded 13 others, including then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Giffords has endorsed Kirkpatrick.

Kirkpatrick notes that as a state lawmaker, Heinz supported a bill in 2012 that blocked the state’s authority from limiting magazine capacity for hunters. Heinz said that as an emergency-room physician he has seen up close the effects of gun violence and said it was “ridiculous” to suggest he supports the NRA. Besides, Democrats such as future U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego and gubernatorial candidate Steve Farley also voted for the measure, he said.

Others make their case 

Heinz, who is supported by former three-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Dennis DeConcini, is again leaning on his medical background to push health care as a top issue for voters.

“I understand health care on a granular level better than anyone in this race,” he said. “Doctors tend not to lie to their patients … That’s something that’s very unusual in the political world.”

Heinz points to legislative victories like a tax credit for farmers who produce crops helpful to biofuels as a sign of his commitment to Democratic issues tempered with the political reality of what’s possible in a GOP-controlled Legislature.

RELATED: Fox News errs in ‘Ann Kirkpatrick’ interview

But others are clamoring for big changes, too.

Wheeler, for example, proposes offering Medicare for all and suggests raising corporate taxes to pay for it. Matiella is among those who want to abolish ICE, whose actions she denounced as racist. It is part of a broader case for social and economic justice that she emphasizes.

Kovacs, a 31-year-old who helps manage a hotel, calls for a new generation of leadership and wants urgent action to combat climate change and foster debt-free college. He discusses the issues as economic concerns in a way he hopes connects with independents and conservatives, too.

“It sounds like some of the issues are to the left, but I know how to articulate those to the center and the right as well,” he said, offering as an example the planned copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains. 

“I talk about the environmental and the economic impact on that area,” Kovacs said. “People don’t want their housing prices to go down. They don’t want their small businesses to close.”

RELATED: Congressional candidate denies rape allegations

Still, the race seems to come back to Kirkpatrick and the case for someone else.

“Ann is the only candidate who doesn’t support Medicare for all,” Wheeler said. “There’s other baggage for Ann. The fact that she’s been endorsed by the (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee), by Nancy Pelosi. The Democratic Party establishment in Washington has already interfered before voters get a chance to vote. … And we didn’t mention the carpetbagger issue.”

Tucson resident Tom Dorgan left the July Democratic forum in a position that others may be pondering.

“I’m completely undecided,” the 63-year-old said. “Every one of these people I heard said things I agreed with and some things I disagreed with.”

Read or Share this story: