Kirkpatrick’s departure will set off an open seat race in a southern Arizona district that, in its current form, started the decade as competitive turf but it’s now quite blue. The 2nd District, which includes about 60% of Tucson’s Pima County and all of conservative Cochise County to the east, backed Mitt Romney 50-48 in 2012 and hosted incredibly tight House races that year and in 2014.
Hillary Clinton carried the seat 50-44 in 2016, but Republican Rep. Martha McSally, who had narrowly prevailed two years before, was decisively reelected that year. Kirkpatrick convincingly flipped the 2nd in 2018 when McSally left to run for the Senate, though, and she had little trouble holding it in 2020 as Joe Biden was romping to a 55-44 victory here.
However, redistricting is an especially unpredictable affair in Arizona, and no one knows what this constituency will look like next year. The Grand Canyon’s congressional and legislative maps are drawn by a bipartisan commission, but Republicans have done everything they can to eliminate it.
In 2015, the Supreme Court upheld the body’s constitutionality by just a 5-4 margin, and since then, the court has moved to the right. If the commission is struck down, the Republican-controlled state government would control the mapmaking process, and they’d likely do whatever they could to make the 2nd District red turf again.
Kirkpatrick’s departure will also end a long career in state politics that includes three non-consecutive stints in Congress, including in two different congressional districts under the current map. Kirkpatrick, who grew up on the White Mountain Apache Nation reservation, campaigned for her uncle’s successful bids for the state legislature, and she later sought a state House seat herself in 2004. The Apache-speaking Kirkpatrick, who is white, ran in a northern Arizona seat that had long been represented by Native Americans and prevailed despite initial skepticism about her prospects.
Kirkpatrick soon sought a promotion in 2007 when Rep. Rick Renzi, a Republican who would be indicted for public corruption months later, announced that he would retire from the sprawling 1st Congressional District in the northern part of the state. The 1st had supported George W. Bush 54-46 in 2004, but Republicans struggled to recruit a strong candidate in what was rapidly turning into an ugly year for the party.
The eventual GOP nominee, Arizona Mining Association president Sydney Hay, had a hard-right record that made her unappealing to plenty of swing voters, and she pulled off an unimpressive primary win even as Kirkpatrick was decisively taking her party’s nomination. National Republicans abandoned Hayes to her fate in September and Kirkpatrick won 56-39 even as home state Sen. John McCain was carrying the 1st by a 54-44 margin.
Kirkpatrick was in for a far more difficult campaign two years later, though, in the face of an ugly political climate. Dentist Paul Gosar, a tea partier who had not yet become the nationally infamous figure he is now, defeated Hayes in the 2010 primary and focused his general election campaign on healthcare and immigration. This time, outside groups on both sides spent heavily throughout the race, but Gosar unseated Kirkpatrick 50-44.
Kirkpatrick’s time away from Congress would be brief, though. The state’s independent redistricting commission drew up a new 1st District that, at 51-48 McCain, was considerably less conservative than the seat Kirkpatrick had just lost. Gosar opted to run in the safely red 4th District while Kirkpatrick campaigned in the open 1st against former Republican state Sen. Jonathan Paton. This was another very competitive campaign, but Kirkpatrick, who benefited from her long ties to American Indian communities in a seat that was more than 20% Native American, won 49-45 as Romney was taking the district 50-48.
Kirkpatrick would have to defend herself again in 2014 in the midst of what would prove to be another GOP wave year, but things worked out very differently for her than they had in 2010. National Republicans anticipated that state House Speaker Andy Tobin would be a tough candidate, but he only barely won the late August primary after a contest that depleted his already meager resources.
Kirkpatrick, meanwhile, ran a strong race where she once again mobilized Native American voters: The congresswoman benefited from turnout spurred by a competitive race for president of the Navajo Nation, and Kirkpatrick herself also recorded an ad in Navajo. Kirkpatrick ended up prevailing 53-47, and she was one of just five Democrats left in a Romney seat after the dust settled from the rough cycle.
Kirkpatrick’s win under unfavorable conditions for her party made her a sought-out Senate candidate, and Democrats were delighted when she launched her campaign to unseat McCain in 2016. However, while Team Blue hoped that McCain could lose to a far-right primary foe, but this race became less appealing after he won renomination against state Sen. Kelli Ward. Prominent outside organizations on both sides largely directed their resources towards other contests, and McCain beat Kirkpatrick 54-41 as Donald Trump was prevailing 48-45.
Kirkpatrick’s congressional career seemed to be over, especially since fellow Democrat Tom O’Halleran had won in the 1st District, but she soon began talking about challenging Republican incumbent Martha McSally in the neighboring 2nd District. Kirkpatrick, who said in 2017 that she was moving to Tucson for family reasons, received public encouragement from former Rep. Ron Barber, who had lost to McSally in 2014, and she launched her bid that July. She didn’t get the chance to take on McSally, though, as the congresswoman decided to mount an ultimately-unsuccessful campaign for the Senate the next year.
Both parties initially saw the 2nd as a major battleground, but Kirkpatrick had to get through a crowded primary this time. Her main opponent was the party’s 2016 nominee, former state Rep. Matt Heinz, who portrayed Kirkpatrick as an outsider and drew unfavorable headlines when he even compared her to a meth addict.
Kirkpatrick won that ugly race 42-30, but she had an easier time in the general election. National Republicans had touted their eventual nominee, Lea Marquez Peterson, but she ended up winning her own primary with an unimpressive 34% of the vote against weak opposition. GOP groups initially aired ads against Kirkpatrick but triaged the race in mid-October as the political climate worsened for them, and Kirkpatrick won her new seat 55-45.
In 2020, for once, Kirkpatrick did not face any serious opposition. The congresswoman did spend six weeks on a leave of absence from Congress in the winter of 2020 as she underwent treatment for alcoholism, but she made it clear she would continue to run for re-election. Kirkpatrick won what would be her final term by the same 55-45 margin as she earned two years before.