May 28, 2015 — A surprising story broke in Arizona Tuesday. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ-1) announced that she will forego her re-election bid and instead challenge Sen. John McCain (R) next year. The congresswoman was included on most “possible candidate” lists, but was not viewed as someone overtly planning to make the jump into the statewide contest. Her move, however, may be a precursor to another decision that will soon enter the public domain.
With McCain’s approval numbers dropping into the dangerously low category (36:51 percent favorable to unfavorable according to Public Policy Polling), Kirkpatrick’s move is not without political reason. The latest PPP survey (May 1-3; 600 registered Arizona voters) finds her trailing the senator only 36-42 percent, certainly suggesting that such a general election pairing would yield a competitive contest.
But, the driving force behind Kirkpatrick may not be McCain’s perceived vulnerability. Rather, since the US Supreme Court is poised to soon render a decision on the Arizona redistricting challenge, it may be this issue that is actually motivating Kirkpatrick to move forward.
The Arizona Republicans are challenging the state’s congressional map on the grounds that the US Constitution only gives federal redistricting power to state legislatures. Before the 2000 reapportionment, voters adopted a ballot proposition that created a redistricting commission empowered to draw congressional and state legislative lines. The crux of the suit argues that a citizens’ commission has no authority to draw congressional lines.
If the high court agrees with the Republican plaintiffs, the congressional map will be redrawn. Since state legislative Republicans will then create a new federal redistricting plan, it is a virtual certainty that Rep. Kirkpatrick’s sprawling marginal 1st District that stretches from Flagstaff around Phoenix, and into the north Tucson area will gain a sizable number of Republicans, thus virtually dooming her to defeat. Kirkpatrick was first elected in 2008, but lost her first re-election bid in 2010. She regained the seat in 2012 and surprisingly held on (53-47 percent) last November, thus bucking the Republican landslide tide.
But, Ms. Kirkpatrick may have yet another reason for making the move into the Senate race right now. Delighting the national Democratic leadership by giving them a strong challenger for an increasingly weakening Sen. McCain, Kirkpatrick may have already neutralized potential primary opponent Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ-9), the Flagstaff congresswoman’s colleague from south Phoenix.
With Kirkpatrick seizing the opportunity to move into the statewide race and gaining positive verbal support from the Democratic establishment both in Arizona and Washington, DC, Sinema may find herself with fewer options should a new redistricting map also attack her marginally Democratic 9th District. Most political observers believe the Republicans could draw a 7R-2D map, leaving only the Democratic seats of representatives Raul Grijalva (D-AZ-3) and Ruben Gallego (D-AZ-7) in tact.
The Supreme Court could announce the Arizona decision any day, and it will almost assuredly be publicized before the end of June. Most legal experts opine that the Arizona Republicans have a 50-50 chance of winning the ruling. It is expected the decision will be a 5-4 margin, but which side will have the fifth vote is open to heavy speculation.
Should the court rule the commission unconstitutional, the effect will be greater than just seeing a new map created in Arizona. Congressional commissions in California, Washington, and New Jersey will also be affected. Therefore, though this appears to be a simple case, the ramifications from a plaintiff’s victory could be highly significant.