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Arizona Democrat Kirkpatrick Making Capitol Hill Comeback

Rep.-elect Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., enters a room full of supporters on Election Day, Nov. 6, in Flagstaff, Ariz.
Ralph Freso

She won. She lost. She won again.

Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick will represent Arizona's 1st Congressional District when she returns to Washington this week after sitting out a term. This time around, Kirkpatrick hopes to strengthen her foothold in a swing district, but she's dealing with a tricky electorate.

First elected to the House in 2008, Kirkpatrick turned a red district blue. Then in 2010, the backlash against President Obama and his health care plan hurt her. So, a Republican dentist from Flagstaff took her seat for a term.

When the district was redrawn to include fewer conservatives, Kirkpatrick was able to build a coalition of disparate groups — seniors, copper miners, ranchers and tribes — and get elected again.

Arizona is what you might call a don't-fence-me-in state. And Kirkpatrick abides by that motto. She voted for Obama's health care overhaul and economic stimulus. But she also voted against a bill aimed at curbing global warming and stood with Republicans in support of an Arizona copper mine. She's more conservative than some Democrats, but she refuses to join the conservative Democratic coalitions.

Kirkpatrick says she's a daughter of the district. "Both my mother's family and my father's family go back almost a hundred years in the district," she says. "I was born in the district, raised in the district, raised my family in the district. And so that's the way I see myself."

Gun Control

Kirkpatrick grew up in the endless pine forests and pristine lakes of the White Mountains, where her father taught her how to hunt. Kirkpatrick was an ardent gun rights supporter — at least until two years ago, when she says the shooting of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords led her to rethink her views.

"How could it not?" she says. "I mean, Gabby Giffords was a mentor of mine in the state Legislature and also in Congress. You know, this has hit really close to home."

As the nation is currently abuzz with talk of gun control, Kirkpatrick has joined the refrain of "everything is on the table." But that's not what her website says.

"The lead issue is the Second Amendment," says Fred Solop, a Northern Arizona University political science professor.

Kirkpatrick's website says: "I pledge to oppose any attempt by the federal government to undermine the Second Amendment and infringe on our constitutional right to bear arms."

A Balancing Act

Solop says this rural district with its interest in guns is conservative. More Republicans have held onto this seat than Democrats. That means Kirkpatrick has to be a moderate. Solop says she needs to respect the ideologies of the district while at the same time looking over her shoulder at her party.

"When we think about the election, it's a more ideologically driven electorate in these off-year elections — 2010, 2014," he says. "It's the liberal voters. It's the conservative voters. It isn't as many voters in the middle."

Those moderate voters do turn out for a presidential election. But Solop points out that Kirkpatrick won with only 48 percent of the vote in November because a third-party candidate drew away some support.

"She doesn't have the support of a majority of voters," he says. "She needs to be thinking about 2014 and how to build that support."

Solop says Kirkpatrick has to be visible in her sprawling district — one of the largest in the nation — while attempting to juggle the complex interests of her constituents: the ranchers, the veterans, the copper miners, the university professors and the tribes.

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