After several attack ads, a half-dozen negative mailers, a lawsuit, and a stalking by a private investigator, a top Democratic pickup opportunity along the Arizona-Mexico border has turned into one of the cycle's nastiest primary brawls.
The race for the state's Tucson-based 2nd District pits Ann Kirkpatrick, a battle-tested former member from a neighboring seat whose campaign launch a year ago instantly catapulted the race to among the most competitive in the country, against Matt Heinz, the 2016 nominee and former state representative who has invested $426,000 of his own funds into his bid.
"They both engaged in some fairly negative campaigning against each other," said Jeff Rogers, the former chairman of the Pima County Democratic Party. "I have some grave concerns that whoever emerges from that will be a little bit wounded going into the general election."
Despite Kirkpatrick's high name ID and fundraising advantage, multiple polls conducted in recent weeks showed a close contest for the Aug. 28 primary. The two front-runners have unleashed a flurry of hits blasting the other as insufficiently progressive, attacks buoyed by how each has taken votes that bucked the party line.
Even Kirkpatrick allies concede a Heinz victory is possible, and the Democratic cavalry has been working to boost her. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ran a coordinated TV ad buy with her campaign last month, and EMILY's List recently dropped $250,000 to run an anti-Heinz ad.
Most strategists watching the race say Kirkpatrick is favored. The candidates had both spent upwards of $350,000 on TV advertising by mid-August, but the outside help has given Kirkpatrick an extra 1,700 gross rating points on the air, according to media-buying data.
Still, Heinz has released two internal polls that showed him leading, including by 5 points in the most recent one conducted in early August. Private Democratic polling has found the race either tied or with Kirkpatrick up by single digits, sources familiar with the surveys said.
The campaigns have dropped seven ads with negative messaging—six from Heinz and one from Kirkpatrick—and candidate forums have gotten heated. Heinz openly acknowledges that he bankrolled a lawsuit challenging Kirkpatrick's Tucson residency. The judge ultimately sided with Kirkpatrick, but the former congresswoman spent several hours being cross-examined, she was trailed by a private investigator, and her daughters and stepson were subpoenaed.
"Matt Heinz hasn’t run a positive TV ad—Ann’s run four," Kirkpatrick spokesman Rodd McLeod said. "This has become an unhealthy primary because you have a guy who is spreading lies, gossiping."
Heinz has alleged Kirkpatrick is a political chameleon, shifting her once-moderate positions on issues such as gun control, the Affordable Care Act, and clean-air standards out of expedience now that she is running in a district more favorable to Democrats. In an interview, Heinz called her "a carpetbagger" whose "priorities and values seem to be for sale," and even suggested that she was addicted to serving in Congress.
"All she can think about is, 'What do I have to do to put that damnable little pin onto my lapel,'" he said. "That’s all she can see and I understand it because I’ve had to treat people with meth addiction."
Kirkpatrick, who held two nonconsecutive stints representing a more rural district to the north, has a lengthy record of voting contrary to Democratic leadership and in previous campaigns touted an A rating from the National Rifle Association—something Heinz mentioned in ads.
She attributes her current support for more stringent gun laws to the 2011 shooting in Tucson and has deployed onto the trail two of the most compelling gun-control advocates: former Reps. Gabby Giffords and Ron Barber.
Yet there's anecdotal evidence that Heinz's ads have muddled Kirkpatrick's views with voters.
Barber recalled that an attendee at a political event last week asked how Kirkpatrick had earned his and Giffords's support when she was "rated high by the NRA." Barber, who served with Kirkpatrick in Congress, vouched that "her position moved dramatically on the gun issue." She now has an F rating from the NRA.
"I’ve seen him play this game before," said Barber, who faced Heinz in the 2012 primary for the seat. "I hate the fact that it’s gotten negative, but I’ll put the blame firmly on Matt for starting that whole process."
Heinz has also zeroed in on Kirkpatrick's jump to the district, which Republican Rep. Martha McSally is vacating to run for the Senate. Kirkpatrick has explained that she moved from Flagstaff to Tucson to be closer to family after giving up her 1st District seat last cycle to challenge Sen. John McCain.
Kirkpatrick's TV ad hounds Heinz for being "the only Democrat to vote for a Republican plan that gutted health care for seniors" and accuses him of siding with the NRA when he voted against a ban on high-capacity magazines. (The 2012 law in question blocked the state's fish-and-game commission from restricting the magazine capacity on certain firearms used in hunting.)
In past campaigns, Heinz touted his willingness to work across the aisle and even indicated that he left his position in Democratic leadership in the statehouse because it would allow him to partner more with Republican colleagues. But he said in an interview last week that he never compromised his progressive ideals.
If Heinz prevails, Democrats insist that the seat will remain in play and that their chances are buoyed by the absence of McSally, a fundraising juggernaut. But it's clear that the national party prefers Kirkpatrick; she is in the Red to Blue program for top House candidates, and the DCCC spent $126,000 to run a pro-Kirkpatrick ad.
Heinz has struggled to fundraise. He self-funded a sizable chunk of the $855,000 he had brought in by the end of June, and raised less than $36,000 over the next five weeks. Kirkpatrick’s $186,000 haul in that time boosted her to nearly $2 million raised to date, allowing her to outspend Heinz in the pre-primary period, $687,000 to $453,000.
The winner next week will likely go up against a credible Republican in Lea Marquez Peterson, the president of the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, who faces a relatively unencumbered path to her party's nomination.