FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The primary race to represent the largest swath of Arizona in Congress largely is being fought like it's the general election, with the Democratic and Republican front-runners banking on their name recognition and past legislative experience to secure the 1st District seat.
The district extends from the northern outskirts of Tucson on the south to the Arizona-Utah line on the north, including Flagstaff, much of eastern Arizona and a number of American Indian reservations. Though Democrats have a slight majority in voter registration, the seat has been won more often by Republicans.
Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick, a former prosecutor and state legislator, lost it in 2010 to political newcomer Republican Paul Gosar, who is seeking re-election in a neighboring district. She's far outpaced her primary opponent, Wenona Benally Baldenegro, in fundraising and already has taken aim at Republican Jonathan Paton for the general election.
Paton, a former state legislator who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2010, targeted Kirkpatrick early in the race and says nothing indicates he won't be the party's nominee. He faces Gaither Martin and Patrick Gatti, both of whom are making their first attempt at Congress.
The race is among one of the most closely watched in the country, with a pledge from national Democrat and Republican groups to support their nominees financially and with television spots after the Aug. 28 primary. Those nominations are almost guaranteed to Kirkpatrick and Paton, said Fred Solop, a Northern Arizona University political science professor.
"They recognize they have to get through the primary, but it makes sense for them to help define the opposition rather than letting their opposition candidates define them," he said.
Paton has served in the state Legislature and sponsored a bill to require new accountability for the state's child-protection program. He took time out from the Legislature to serve in Iraq as an intelligence officer with the Army Reserve. The man he lost to in the Republican primary for the 8th Congressional District seat two years ago, Jesse Kelly, now is supporting him.
Paton has criticized Kirkpatrick over her votes for the 2009 economic stimulus and the 2010 health-care overhaul, and for what he says is too close of a tie to President Barack Obama's agenda. He says she hasn't exercised her responsibility of being a check and balance on the president.
"If people in CD1 want more of the same, she'll be the one," he said. "But if they want someone who is going to ask tough questions and actually go out and see them and answer questions from voters themselves, then I'm the guy."
Kirkpatrick and Paton's Republican opponents have characterized him as an outsider to the district who is more beholden to lobbying interests, specifically payday lending, than to the district's voters. Paton lives in Tucson. Like other candidates, he's not required to live in the district but it sometimes factors into voting.
"I'm a leader; Jonathan is a lobbyist who is looking for a place to run," Kirkpatrick says. "He was running away from that nickname (Payday Paton) he got in Tucson and hoping it wouldn't follow him up north, but it has."
While in Congress, Kirkpatrick backed a plan to thin forests to create logging jobs and a copper mine in the old mining town of Superior. She has painted herself as a conservative Democrat and further distanced herself from Obama during her campaign two years ago. If elected, she said she would work again to obtain a scenic area designation for Sedona and revive the copper mine proposal with environmental protections.
The mine proposal isn't one that Baldenegro agrees with, saying it would be a disaster for unionized workers and that the potential jobs aren't worth the environmental risks or destruction to sites that American Indians consider sacred. She believes her values and focus on jobs better resonate with voters.
"What's common to everyone in this district is they are tired of corporate lobbying dollars influencing the outcome of this election," said Baldenegro, a Harvard Law School graduate and member of the Navajo Nation. "They're tired of Washington, D.C., political consultants choosing their candidates for them, and they're tired of the partisan politics."
On the Republican side, Martin is asking voters to consider a fresh face and touts his family's deep roots in the district.
"It matters when you have a tough decision or a tough vote when you remember the people that may benefit or be hurt by a decision or vote are the people you live among or are related to," said Martin, a former senior adviser to Iraq's minister of planning. "It changes to decision calculus from a political move to really understanding the needs of the people."
Gatti says he's on par with Paton when it comes to legislative experience, having served five terms on a city council in California. The former flower shop owner said he decided to run for Congress to change the direction the country is heading.
"I just got sick and tired of listening to what was going on with Obama," he said. "I think he's a socialist, and I think he wants to lead the country down that socialistic avenue. I can't imagine us doing that."