Dem to challenge McCain for Senate in '16

Rep. Ann KirkpatrickAnn KirkpatrickSenate rivals gear up for debates McCain opponent releases new ad hitting his record House passes bill preventing future cash payments to Iran MORE (D-Ariz.) is running for the Senate in 2016, potentially setting up a battle between the swing-district Democrat and incumbent Sen. John McCainJohn McCainTrump's new debate challenge: Silence Senate rivals gear up for debates McCain opponent releases new ad hitting his record MORE (R-Ariz.).

“I respect John McCain’s service to our nation,” Kirkpatrick says in an online video posted Tuesday. “I just believe our state is changing and Arizonans should have a real choice who they send to the United States Senate.”

Kirkpatrick, a former state lawmaker who is serving her third term in Congress, survived the GOP wave election in 2014, defeating Arizona state Speaker Andy Tobin (R).

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The feat was all the more impressive because the 1st Congressional District leans Republican, although it was redrawn in 2010 to become more competitive for Democrats.

McCain won the first district in his 2008 bid for president, and 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried the district in the last presidential cycle.

"A lot of us are shocked but very excited about this because this will be the first true test of John McCain," said an Arizona Democratic source, who received a call from Kirkpatrick Tuesday morning before the announcement. "Ann is somebody who has the best appeal for a statewide race, with name ID in both Tucson and Phoenix and the fact that she's from a rural area."

Kirkpatrick has deep ties to the large Native American community in her district, having grown up on Fort Apache tribal land. In her Senate announcement video, she notes that her mother was a teacher at the White Mountain Apache Nation and her father owned a local general store.

In 2014, Kirkpatrick ran as a staunch supporter of ObamaCare, and voters in the poor, rural district, where more than 60 percent of people are eligible for some form of public healthcare, rewarded her with a 5-percentage-point victory.

However, Kirkpatrick didn’t mention the healthcare law in her Senate announcement video.

“In Congress I’ve been working hard to put Arizona first, help create a strong, diverse economy, improve education, look out for Arizona’s farms, ranches and natural beauty, take care of our veterans, pay down our debt, protect Social Security and Medicare, and make Washington play by the same rules as everyone else,” she said.

McCain would start a race against Kirkpatrick as the favorite.

According to a Public Policy Polling survey released earlier this month, he leads in a head-to-head matchup against Kirkpatrick by 6 percentage points.

McCain also has a significant cash advantage to begin the race. He raised $2.1 million in the first quarter, bringing his total cash on hand to over $3.6 million. Kirkpatrick raised just over $300,000 and finished the quarter with about that much in the bank.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee sought to frame Kirkpatrick as a rubber stamp for President Obama’s agenda.

"Ann Kirkpatrick has been part of the problem in Washington and Arizonans are paying the price,” NRSC communications director Andrea Bozek said in a statement. “She doesn’t believe we should 'second guess' President Obama which is why she supported ObamaCare, his trillion dollar stimulus that created jobs in China and cuts to Medicare.

"There is no question Ann Kirkpatrick has made life worse for Arizona families," she added.

Former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona (D-Ariz.), Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), and Fred DuVal (D-Ariz.), who lost the governor’s race in the state in 2014, are also believed to be considering bids. McCain leads each by between 4 and 6 points.

Still, McCain is unpopular with some conservatives in Arizona and could face a primary challenger.

Outside conservative groups are pushing Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) to challenge McCain. State Sen. Kelli Ward (R) is also believed to be considering a primary challenge.

"Of those thinking a Democrat could wage a tough challenge versus McCain, myself included, Sinema was presupposed for the role as her political skills and generational juxtaposition would be most formidable," said an Arizona GOP strategist.

"I would definitely file [Kirkpatrick's move] in the gutsy category. I find Sinema to be a much more intriguing candidate versus McCain if the senator can avoid Salmon in a primary."

Tobin, who was appointed as director of the state Weights and Measures Department, is expected to run for the House seat Kirkpatrick is vacating. The former Speaker has spent the year lobbying to eliminate the agency he now leads.

Last summer, Tobin edged out wealthy rancher and businessman Gary Kiehne by just 407 votes to win the GOP nomination in the House race. Kiehne, who funded his own campaign, has already said he's running again in 2016.

Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, an Iraq War veteran and ardent opponent of illegal immigration, also is mulling a bid for Kirkpatrick's seat. He explored running for Congress in the 2012 cycle but was forced to drop his bid after a Mexican immigrant with whom he had a romantic relationship outed him as gay.

Later, Babeu easily won a second term as sheriff.

On the Democratic side, Liz Archuleta, who serves on the Coconino County Board of Supervisors, could also take a look at the House race, Arizona sources said.

— This story was last updated at 7:48 p.m.