The fight over whether Democrats will turn Martha McSally’s seat in Congress from red to blue is mostly flying under the radar this year, eclipsed by the shadows of bigger political fights.
The Arizona Senate seat, currently held by Republican Jeff Flake, and the battle for governor have flooded airwaves, social media channels and mailboxes over the past month, relegating the campaigns of Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick and Republican Lea Marquez Peterson to smaller venues and a fraction of the attention the Congressional District 2 race got two and four years ago.
The race is still one of the most closely watched House races in the country, with outside groups still pouring money into the race.
The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan online newsletter that analyzes elections and campaigns, describes Congressional District 2 as “leans Democrat.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent $894,794 on ads mostly attacking Peterson, according to Federal Election Commission data. Others groups that spent money on attack ads against Marquez Peterson include House Majority PAC and Priorities USA Action.
GOP groups have also come into the race to target Kirkpatrick, including the National Republican Congressional Committee.
A former congresswoman, Kirkpatrick has staged a successful political comeback after losing to John McCain two years ago by capturing the Democratic nomination in a brutal and expensive seven-way primary in August.
Marquez Peterson stepped onto the political stage for the first time earlier this year, announcing her campaign even before McSally formally announced her Senate ambitions.
Both have attempted to shed the labels foisted on them by their political enemies, but it is clear that partisan attacks will play a significant role for the remainder of the campaign.
EXPERIENCE: A DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD
The 68-year-old Kirkpatrick is considered by many to have the edge over her Republican rival, her campaign bolstered by name recognition from three terms in Congress, running a statewide race two years ago and a year-long, well-funded primary campaign.
Her experience has become somewhat of an Achilles’ heel, with Democrats criticizing her for votes in Congress on land swaps, missing a pivotal vote protecting “Dreamers,” and her former “A” rating with the National Rifle Association she earned while representing Northern Arizona.
Kirkpatrick has largely brushed aside these complaints, noting she voted on the Oak Flat Land Exchange to insert environmental protections, was in the hospital on the day of the “Dreamer” vote, and after the Jan. 8, 2011, shooting that killed six people here, had a change of heart when it came to gun control.
The latter earned her an endorsement by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, who have been active in campaigning for Kirkpatrick.
Kirkpatrick has acknowledged claims that she moved into the district for another shot at Congress. She rejects the narrative, saying she was spending a lot of time in Tucson over the last two years, helping to care for her young grandchildren — two of whom had serious medical complications in the first few months.
Kirkpatrick said when McSally backed changes to the Affordable Care Act over a year ago, it became personal, as the combined medical bills for the grandchildren were a half a million dollars despite having insurance.
“Martha McSally voted for that deadly — what I call deadly — Republican health-care bill that would have kicked tens of millions of people off health care again,” she said.
While making health care a cornerstone of her campaign, Kirkpatrick has fallen in line with clear Democratic positions, opposing President Trump’s border wall, comprehensive immigration reform, vowing to support DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients, a woman’s right to choose and protecting Social Security and Medicare from cuts.
On the latter issue, Kirkpatrick has hit her opponent hard on her support to allow younger workers to invest some of their Social Security funds in the private market.
Kirkpatrick says Marquez Peterson has a “really fatal misunderstanding of how Social Security works”: that money paid into the Social Security trust fund by those in the workforce goes directly to those currently receiving Social Security benefits.
“Think what seniors would have lost if Wall Street was managing Social Security,” Kirkpatrick said.
Marquez Peterson has rejected the criticism, with her campaign chair saying Democrats were sensationalizing it.
Kirkpatrick herself has seen criticism after a leaked audio tape surfaced recently saying she’d support impeaching President Trump if Democrats took the House in November.
Last week, Kirkpatrick said the attack twisted her words and vowed to keep an “open mind,” noting she wouldn’t make a decision until Robert Mueller’s investigation is complete.
But the tape undercuts one of her planks — that she’d be a moderate in the House, willing to work across party lines.
“I’d go back as a congresswoman reasonably known to be thoughtful and known to be willing to reach across the aisle,” she said.
The 48-year-old Marquez Peterson doesn’t want to be labeled as a moderate, although she is more comfortable calling her rival a liberal.
“I see myself as a lifelong conservative Republican who has been influenced by living throughout Southern Arizona and weighing in on issues and having commonsense solutions,” Marquez Peterson said. “I don’t know the label perhaps you might use for that.”
Since announcing her first run for political office in December, Marquez Peterson has married herself to the premise that she is not a politician.
But that doesn’t mean she is a political novice. Active in local political issues, Marquez Peterson has close ties to both McSally and Gov. Doug Ducey.
She was able to raise more than $773,000 in her nascent campaign and was the clear front-runner in the four-person Republican primary.
Marquez Peterson also has the ear of the Trump administration.
As the CEO of the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Marquez Peterson met with key advisers even before she announced her run for Congress.
“I was very honored last November to be invited back to a Trump transition team meeting,” she said. “I was there representing Arizona and could speak to his key advisers about everything from health care to trade to deregulation.”
Her invitation, she says, was due to her nearly decade-long leadership role with the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
“I think I’ve built a reputation in this community for making sure that I had a seat at the table,” she said.
Those ties have led to criticisms that she has supported various Trump administration policies, including attacks suggesting that she would gut the Affordable Care Act.
Marquez Peterson said while she supports repealing and replacing Obamacare with a new system, she told the Arizona Daily Star that the ACA’s replacement must protect those with pre-existing conditions, offering them private insurance at a fair price.
Core issues for Marquez Peterson include border security, including building Trump’s wall, job creation, increased trade with Mexico, tax reform and continued support for military bases.
Marquez Peterson has been accused since kicking off her campaign of keeping a low profile, ducking some debates and attending another held in a private club that was open only to registered Republicans.
She rejects the accusations, saying she has been accessible in the community long before she entered the CD2 race.
“I’ve been a very visible business leader in this community for decades, I mean I’m not hiding anywhere. In fact just yesterday I was in Benson, Green Valley and Willcox all in one day. I didn’t see (Kirkpatrick) in any of those places I attended,” she said, adding that she looks forward to debating Kirkpatrick next week.
The debate will be held at the Tucson Jewish Community Center on Oct. 9, and while the event is open to the public, it is sold out.
The debate will be broadcast live on television on PBS 6 and on the radio on NPR 89.1 and KJZZ 91.5, and streaming online at Tucson.com