Meet the Arizona Democrat not running away from her ObamaCare vote

Meet the Arizona Democrat not running away from her ObamaCare vote
© Scott Wong

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Rep. Ann KirkpatrickAnn KirkpatrickArizona Rep. Tom O'Halleran wins Democratic primary Arizona Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick wins Democratic primary Cook shifts 20 House districts toward Democrats MORE’s vote for ObamaCare led to her defeat in the Tea Party wave of 2010.

Two years after she retook the seat, the vulnerable Arizona Democrat has a radical reelection strategy: own her vote.

ADVERTISEMENT

The healthcare law isn’t a front-and-center issue in the 2014 election cycle, but Kirkpatrick’s race against Andy Tobin, the Arizona state House Speaker and GOP establishment favorite, is the rare exception to that rule.

President Obama is deeply unpopular in Kirkpatrick’s rural, relatively poor 1st Congressional District, and the Democrat rattles off grievances about the White House’s handling of the Ebola outbreak and recent terror threats. But she’s unapologetic about her support for ObamaCare.

“It was the right vote for my district,” she says between sips of coffee at the KickStand Kafé in Flagstaff, the old lumber and railroad town along Historic Route 66 where Kirkpatrick has called home for the past 30 years.

More than 60 percent of Kirkpatrick’s constituents receive or are eligible for some form of public healthcare, the 2010 Census shows. That includes Medicare, Medicaid, veterans’ healthcare, and Indian health services for the dozen Native American tribes that make up a quarter of the district’s population. About 21,000 people in the sprawling, eastern Arizona district receive Medicaid, while another 21,000 have already enrolled in ObamaCare.

“This may be the only congressional district in the country with those kinds of numbers,” the congresswoman said.

She’s refused to join Republican efforts to repeal the law and was one of a few endangered Democrats who voted to reject a GOP bill allowing insurance companies to continue selling plans that fall short of Affordable Care Act requirements.

To repeat her 2012 victory, which came after redistricting made her seat more competitive for Democrats, she’ll need to cobble together a broad coalition: seniors, students from Northern Arizona University, ranchers, copper miners, power plant workers and Native Americans. During visits to reservations, Kirkpatrick, who was born and raised on Fort Apache tribal land, hammers home the point that ObamaCare indefinitely reauthorized free healthcare services for Native Americans, a population that has struggled with high diabetes and obesity rates.

The former state legislator will have to win over independents and some Republicans like retiree Brenda Laukonis, 74, who came to a candidate debate in Casa Grande undecided but left a Kirkpatrick supporter. And she’ll need a strong showing from Democrats like Cory O’Donnell, 27, a bartender in Flagstaff who’s critical of the healthcare law but recognizes its benefits.

While biking to work this week, O’Donnell was struck by a car and hit the pavement hard; the driver took off. O’Donnell showed up for work anyway, but the next day got checked out by an orthopedic specialist, whom he was already scheduled to see for a nagging rock-climbing injury.

If not for ObamaCare, he’s certain he would not have health coverage and would probably never see a doctor. Still, he’s frustrated the law requires him to sign up and thinks his $120 monthly premium is still too high.

“I don’t think it’s a perfect solution,” O’Donnell said from behind the bar at the landmark Monte Vista Hotel. “I think it’s a duct-taped fix to a pretty s---ty situation.”

Tobin, 56, who was a small-business owner and previously worked in banking and real estate, has led the fight in the Grand Canyon State to repeal ObamaCare, warning about rising insurance rates. And he’s sued fellow Republican, Gov. Jan Brewer, to try to overturn Arizona’s Medicaid expansion under ObamaCare; that case is still tied up in the courts.

“There are some things that we can save out of [ObamaCare], but this program, the way it is written, will continue to drive our country into the abyss, and will continue to keep us from recovering,” Tobin told The Hill in an interview after the debate in Casa Grande, about 50 miles south of Phoenix.

“There’s fewer people paying the bills, fewer people working,” said Tobin, the grandson of Irish immigrants who moved to Arizona from New York in 1979. “We need to have more people working, and that’s the solution, not getting more people on government services.”

GOP political consultant Kurt Davis, a former longtime Flagstaff resident who has contributed to both Tobin and Kirkpatrick this cycle, said the Democrat’s ObamaCare strategy is the right one. “When you make a vote, you own it,” he said. “It’s better to own it than to pretend that you didn’t do it, or pretend like you’re gonna run away from it.”

And though rural Arizona boasts a strong libertarian, anti-Washington streak, Davis points out the irony: Many residents rely on federal assistance, from food stamps and unemployment insurance to federal land leases to ranchers.

“If you go through the intersection of government and people’s lives in rural Arizona,” Davis said, “there’s a lot of federal money.”

Still, not everyone here is happy about so much federal involvement. Terry Wheeler, the mayor of the copper mining town of Globe, said Kirkpatrick’s support of the Endangered Species Act and an Environmental Protection Agency rule aimed at cutting carbon emissions and reducing haze in the Grand Canyon has been disastrous for the local timber, mining and energy industries. A Kirkpatrick spokesman said she ultimately opposed the EPA's final Grand Canyon rule when it came out in June.

Placing his black, 10-gallon hat on the table, Wheeler said he had been a lifelong conservative Democrat but switched parties after Obama won the nomination in 2008. And while he personally knew Kirkpatrick’s father and uncle, the former cattle rancher said he’s backing Tobin, who knows how to “motivate people to succeed.”

“I don’t dislike her as a person,” Wheeler said in an interview at Globe town hall. “But she doesn’t represent the views that I have to create good economic conditions for our county, our state. She’s for government overkill and intervention in people’s lives.”

Kirkpatrick disputes critics who say she hasn’t bucked the Obama administration when it’s at odds with her district. This week, she toured the towering coal-fire Cholla Power Plant in Joseph City, 80 miles east of Flagstaff, and told workers she opposes the EPA’s new regulations that she said will shut down a fourth of the facility and cut jobs.

“We’ve been fighting with the EPA, telling them don’t be a job killer,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s a major area where I depart with the administration.”

This story was updated at 1:28 p.m.