(This is the first in a series by Pete Aleshire about the Congressional District 1 race. This overview of the race will be followed by articles comparing candidates’ thoughts on the issues.)
Flagstaff dentist Paul Gosar’s fierce, bare-knuckle attempt to unseat first-term Congressman Ann Kirkpatrick has turned into a slugfest that could play a role in whether Republicans seize control of the House of Representatives.
The rhetoric appears stark — with near daily charges and counter-charges.
Gosar, who won a crowded Republican primary with the help of an endorsement by Sarah Palin, derides Kirkpatrick as a “liberal” clone of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose votes in favor of key initiatives by the Obama Administration have pushed the U.S. towards socialism and insolvency.
The Kirkpatrick camp depicts Gosar as a right-wing extremist whose policies would shred the already tattered social safety net, push the nation back into recession, endanger Social Security and Medicare and deny health care coverage to thousands of district residents.
The rhetoric is sharp and sometimes bewildering.
“She’s a career politician,” said Gosar, who has never held elected office. “She talks a good storm about being fiscally responsible, like she’s an independent voice, but when she goes to Washington, D.C. she becomes Nancy’s whipping girl,” said Gosar in reference to House Speaker Pelosi.
He cites as prime examples her support for recent health insurance reforms and her vote in favor of the Obama Administration’s stimulus package.
But Kirkpatrick highlights her disagreements with the administration, including her vote against the car company bailouts, the anti-greenhouse gas cap and trade legislation, the new regulations of banks and a recent $1.9 trillion rise in the debt.
“I’m fighting hard for my district — whether that means fighting against Republicans or Democrats. Gosar is really pushing to make government smaller and smaller. That will hurt seniors. That will hurt veterans. That will hurt Social Security.”
National money has poured into the district, which extends from the Navajo Reservation to Casa Grande and includes all of Rim Country. Considered a “toss up” race nationally, the seat remains one of a handful of races now too close to call.
Gosar insists she’s less conservative than her voting record. “I’m a pragmatist,” said Gosar, “and I don’t even know what planet she’s living on. She’s a flip-flopper — she’s been a fair-weather Democrat. She’s seen the winds of change and so changed her mind.”
But Kirkpatrick said that Gosar’s refusal to debate her despite her repeated invitations demonstrates that he would rather distort her record than have a debate on the issues. “I don’t think there are some significant differences in our positions, so it would be nice to get us together in one place.”
Despite Gosar’s push to type-cast the former state lawmaker and Flagstaff prosecutor as a classic liberal, Kirkpatrick has amassed one of the more independent voting records among the Democrats in Congress.
For instance, the Congressional Quarterly’s analysis of votes gave Kirkpatrick a 74 percent party unity score — 418 out of 441 members of Congress ranked. She voted with the administration’s position 67 percent of the time. Only two Democrats had a lower score — and three Republicans had a higher score.
An analysis by the Washington Post concluded that she voted with the Democratic position 86 percent of the time, the ninth lowest score among Democrats. Similarly, OpenCongress reported that she voted with House Minority Leader John Boehner 65 percent of the time — almost as often as she supported President Obama’s positions.
A vote analysis by the National Journal gave Kirkpatrick a composite “conservative” score of 55 and a “liberal” score of 45.
Kirkpatrick has an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, favors a balanced budget amendment and has pushed for a congressional pay cut. She has sharply criticized federal enforcement of immigration laws while supporting a border fence, more patrols, amnesty for the 12 million immigrants living here illegally or any move to establish a guest worker program until border security improves. On most of those points, she agrees with Gosar.
Of course, key differences do exist on a wide range of topics.
For instance, Gosar has sharply criticized Kirkpatrick for supporting “earmarks,” projects funded directly by Congress, without the hearing process or support of the administration. Use of earmarks has exploded in the past decade and now accounts for about $48 billion annually, about 1 percent of federal spending. However, Kirkpatrick has defended her votes on spending bills, as well as her push for projects in the districts — including Payson’s $10.5 million federal grant to help build the Blue Ridge pipeline and a recent $3 million grant to fund a forest thinning project.
The fundamental struggle in an election year marked by rising voter anger about the stalled economy and the soaring federal budget deficit lies in how each side defines Kirkpatrick’s voting record. Gosar hopes that public anger at a Congress that has bailed out banks but proved unable to reduce a 10 percent unemployment rate will help him unseat a well-funded incumbent in a district in which Republicans and Democrats have roughly equal registration and a large number of Independent voters hold the balance.
The limited polling done so far shows the two candidates in a virtual dead heat in what promises to become one of the most expensive congressional races in the country.
Gosar maintains that Kirkpatrick doesn’t represent her conservative district because she has voted with House Speaker Pelosi “90 percent of the time.”
Kirkpatrick countered: “I can stand on my record. I’ve been an independent voice for folks in greater Arizona.