3 District slug-fests to decide Arizona CD makeup

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

PHOENIX (AP) -- The political makeup of Arizona's congressional delegation could swing to either party in next month's election as three of the nine available seats continue to be slug-fests featuring millions of dollars of attack ads paid for by political parties and outside groups.

August's primary election essentially chose the general election victors in six seats, which tilt so heavily toward one party that they're not considered in play barring a huge upset. That split is expected to result in four Republicans and two Democrats winning their elections.

That leaves the new Phoenix-area 9th District, Tucson-centered 2nd District and northeastern Arizona's 1st District open for a win by either party. Depending on the outcome, Democrats could end up with a majority of the delegation or Republicans could hold on or add to their current 5-3 majority. The state earned a ninth seat after the 2010 Census and will fill it for the first time in November.

Turnout among Democratic voters and Hispanics along with how women and the state's large number of independents vote hold the keys, political observers say.

National Republicans and Democrats are pouring cash into the races, a clear indication they are considered battleground races that both parties see as winnable. Outside groups supporting both conservative and liberal causes are also spending in the races.

The 1st District, which runs from Flagstaff through eastern Arizona counties and then west into parts of Pinal County, features Democrat and former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick against Republican former state lawmaker Jonathan Paton.

As of Thursday, the National Republican Congressional Committee has committed $2 million in Phoenix-area television ads in the race, attacking Kirkpatrick as a free-spending backer of President Barack Obama's health care law. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has countered with nearly $1.5 million to paint Paton as a lobbyist who backed the payday loan industry and doesn't care about the middle class.

That money is on top of individual candidates' spending, generally in feel-good commercials touting themselves.

Kirkpatrick lost the endorsement of the state's largest newspaper, The Arizona Republic, for what the paper called her "meltdown" during a joint appearance with Patron at the paper's editorial board. The Republic said she ridiculed, belittled and scolded Paton for an hour, while he coolly defended his record and countered her claim that he was a carpetbagger by pointed to his backing in the district.

The district has more Democrats than Republicans but nearly a third of registered voters are independents.

In the 2nd District, which generally covers the eastern half of Tucson, parts of Pima and all of Cochise county, Democrat Ron Barber is going for a full term after decidedly winning a special election in June to replace his old boss, ex-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. His opponent in that race, Jesse Kelly, quickly decided not to take on Barber again. Retired Air Force fighter pilot Martha McSally is now the Republican in the race, and she's aiming to win some of the women and independents who swung to Barber in June.

The new 2nd District is considered a moderate one winnable by either party, but the old district twice elected Giffords and more recently Barber, despite a higher GOP advantage.

That's left many believing Barber is a strong favorite, but the national party spending is still pouring in. The NRCC has spent or committed $520,000, while the DCCC has committed $311,000 as of Thursday. TV ads are much cheaper in the Tucson market than in Phoenix, so that's a considerable amount of airtime.

The 9th District race pits former Democratic state Sen. Kyrsten Sinema against former Paradise Valley Mayor Vernon Parker.

Parker got a nod from national Republicans in September when he gave the GOP weekly address. He focused on stopping expected tax hikes and developing a tax code he said will help the economy grow and prevent jobs from being sent overseas. Sinema has been touting her ability to work across party lines developed during her eight years in the state Legislature, always in the minority, and her commitment to women's issues.

National Democrats have committed $955,000 million for ads attacking Parker as a tea-party activist who will gut the federal Education Department, while Republicans have upped their ad buy to $1.6 million for ads targeting Sinema as a far-left liberal who doesn't respect work-at-home moms.

The new 9th District includes much of Tempe and parts of Phoenix, Scottsdale, Paradise Valley, Mesa and Chandler. Republicans have a slight registration advantage but both parties' totals are exceeded by independents, and many believe it leans Democratic.

Both the 1st and the 9th districts are true toss-ups, said Bruce Merrill, an Arizona State University political science professor emeritus and longtime pollster, while Barber has the likely edge in the 2nd District. Much of that is because former Rep. Giffords endorsed him when she resigned in January to focus on recovering from a gunshot wound she suffered a year earlier. Barber was also wounded in that attack by a mentally ill former Tucson college student.

"She was so respected down there and her husband's respected (former astronaut Mark Kelly), and if they used her endorsement effectively I would be surprised in that particular district if Barber doesn't win," Merrill said.

In the Kirkpatrick-Paton race, Merrill said ads targeting Kirkpatrick for giving staff bonuses after her 2010 loss could be effective. The district's independents lean libertarian, meaning they may be angered by perceived waste. Another factor: There are a lot of Mormons in the 1st District, who could back Republican Mitt Romney for president and vote the party line down-ticket.

The Sinema-Parker race outcome especially will fall to independents and turnout holds the key, he said. An Oct. 10 visit by former President Bill Clinton at a Tempe rally for Democratic Senate candidate Richard Carmona was all about turnout.

"Bill Clinton didn't change one person's mind in the state, but you get somebody like him to really get your base charged up, to get them out to the polls," Merrill said. "And that's what the end game in politics is really about."

For their part, national Republicans say all three of the tight Arizona races are winnable.

"We think that in each of these races we have a very good chance to deal them some losses that they had counted months ago as wins," NRCC deputy political director Brock McCleary told reporters the day Clinton attended the rally.

A DCCC statement said redistricting made the Arizona races very competitive and they believe the Republican candidates are weak.