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‘Negativity and nastiness’: Dems fret over rowdy Arizona House primary

Ann Kirkpatrick

Former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (above) is facing off in a vicious race against physician and former state legislator Matt Heinz for the House seat left open by Rep. Martha McSally, a GOP candidate for U.S. Senate. | Matt York/AP Photo

Elections

Democrats are attacking each other in one of the party’s top House target districts

TUCSON, Ariz. — A wild, downright nasty primary brawl is threatening the Democratic Party’s prospects in one of the nation’s most competitive House races, magnifying divisions that have split Democrats around the country this year.

The race between former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick and Matt Heinz, who was the party’s nominee in the Tucson-based 2nd District in 2016, has settled on familiar lines, with Heinz running as a progressive anti-establishment candidate against the more moderate, Kirkpatrick who is backed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. But it has also gotten vicious in a way that many other primaries have not, featuring several negative TV ads, a lawsuit, a private investigator and a recent, controversial statement by Heinz comparing Kirkpatrick’s political career to meth addiction.

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Local Democrats worry that the mudslinging ahead of Tuesday’s primary will harm the party’s efforts to flip an inviting swing seat, one of 25 held by Republicans but carried by Hillary Clinton in the last presidential election. Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) left the seat open to run for Senate, making it an even bigger target for Democrats.

But the too-close-to-call primary has “ratcheted up to a new level of negativity and nastiness,” said Andy Barr, a Democratic consultant. The “negativity hurts us,” said Jo Holt, the chairwoman of the Pima County Democratic Party, as local operatives fret about a bruised and resource-depleted nominee likely facing Republican Lea Marquez Peterson in the general election.

Kirkpatrick served three nonconsecutive terms in a neighboring, more conservative district. But after losing a 2016 campaign against Republican Sen. John McCain, Kirkpatrick leaped back to the House to run for McSally’s seat and won the DCCC’s support. EMILY’s List and former Rep. Gabby Giffords are backing Kirkpatrick’s comeback attempt, too.

But that did not deter Heinz, a physician and former state legislator who has spent over $ 400,000 of his own money and hammered Kirkpatrick from the left, criticizing her congressional votes on guns and the environment and touting himself as a supporter of Medicare for all.

“When representing Flagstaff in Congress, Ann Kirkpatrick said she’d fight gun safety advocates every inch of the way and then bragged, ‘That’s why I have an A rating with the NRA,’” the narrator says in one of Heinz’s TV ads, cutting to a news clip of Kirkpatrick from 2010, when she represented a different, more conservative district.

Kirkpatrick has dismissed Heinz’s criticisms, saying her position on guns shifted after Giffords survived a shooting in Tucson in 2011. Now, she and her allies are attacking Heinz for his own gun vote in the state Legislature, with Kirkpatrick airing an ad saying Heinz “sided with the NRA, voting against a ban of high-capacity magazines, even after the tragedy in Tucson.” The 2012 law, referred to in the ad, blocked the state’s Game and Fish Commission from restricting the magazine capacity on certain firearms used in hunting.

Kirkpatrick said she has “always voted like a Democrat” and that she’s “always” had challenges from the left “in every campaign.”

“It’s a swing district, and I have to remind people of that,” Kirkpatrick said, standing in the hallway of her campaign office as two dozen volunteers phone-banked on her behalf. “You can’t win this district with just Democratic votes.”

Heinz said his TV ads are about “educating people on where we have a contrast,” he said over Mexican food at a local restaurant. “My opponent’s record on pretty much everything, except the ACA vote, has been Blue Dog, right-wing, rural, conservative.”

Martha McSally "Pink Tutu" ad

But Heinz’s campaign against Kirkpatrick hasn’t been limited to attack ads. He underwrote a lawsuit challenging Kirkpatrick’s residency listed on campaign paperwork, and hired a private investigator to follow the congresswoman, and subpoenaed Kirkpatrick’s daughters and stepson. A judge ultimately tossed the case.

“She moved 250 miles to a place where she likes to claim she has years of service to southern Arizona … but that was from 1970s,” Heinz said. “That is not the kind of connection to the community that you need.” (Kirkpatrick earned her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Arizona, then worked in Tucson for several years after graduation.)

Heinz, who is running for Congress for a third time, also stirred controversy by criticizing Kirkpatrick’s pursuit of a fourth term in Congress in an interview with National Journal. It’s “all she can see, and I understand it because I’ve had to treat people with meth addiction,” Heinz said.

Giffords, in a statement released Tuesday, called Heinz’s comments “disqualifying,” adding that they “trade on sexist attacks on women’s ambition that are too common in our politics.”

Private polling described to POLITICO shows a tight, two-way race between Heinz and Kirkpatrick, who could be the third DCCC-endorsed candidate to be taken out in a primary in 2018. Some local Democratic operatives said that an intensely energized Democratic base, mixed with anti-establishment aversions, could work against Kirkpatrick.

If so, it would be the second time this year that a former member favored by the DCCC fell to a primary challenger. The first was former Rep. Brad Ashford, a Blue Dog centrist who lost his primary bid in Nebraska to Kara Eastman, a first-time, pro-Medicare for all candidate.

“If you’re a moderate running in a Democratic primary for federal office, that isn’t a good place to be because it’s tough being a moderate right now,” Ashford said. But the former congressman noted a “big difference” between his primary and Kirkpatrick’s primary: “My opponent had no voting record,” while Heinz does, he said.

U.S. Rep. Martha McSally

Voters booed Kirkpatrick several times at a candidate forum last month for not supporting the abolition of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, but the former congresswoman said the agency needed to be “reformed.” On health care, Kirkpatrick said she supports a public option — buying into Medicare at any age — but not Medicare for all.

And if Kirkpatrick survives the primary and the general election, Democratic activists are already plotting another challenge from her left flank, said Nick Arnold, a 24-year-old graduate student who attended the luncheon. “If you think she’ll have a comfortable time, forget it,” he said.

But Kirkpatrick’s supporters — and even some Democrats who didn’t vote for her — gathered at a Democrats of Greater Tucson luncheon this week said that the former congresswoman has “the best shot at winning” in the general because of “her experience, her name recognition, her broad support,” said Jeanne Christie, a 69-year-old voter, who voted for Mary Matiella, a former U.S. Army official who’s also running in the primary. “Ann votes the way that the people that elected her want her to vote, and I think she’ll win the primary.”

“I’m not one of those idiots who believes that the perfect needs to interfere with the good,” said Lee Ezzes, a 61-year-old Kirkpatrick supporter who sat at a nearby table at the luncheon. “Ann speaks to everyone in the district, unlike other candidates who are just focused on the left.”

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