FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- She won. She lost. She won again. Ann Kirkpatrick will represent Arizona's first congressional district when she returns to Washington in January, after sitting out a term. As a Democrat in a conservative western district, she has a tricky balancing act.
First elected to the House in 2008, Ann Kirkpatrick turned a red district blue. Then in 2010 the backlash against President Barack Obama and his health care plan hurt her. So a Republican dentist from Flagstaff took her seat for a term. When the district was redrawn to include fewer conservatives, Kirkpatrick was able to build a coalition of disparate groups -- seniors, copper miners, ranchers, and 12 Native American tribes.
Kirkpatrick is not a by-the-book Democrat. She voted for President Barack Obama’s health care reform and economic stimulus. But she also voted against a bill aimed at curbing global warming, and stood with Republicans in support of an Arizona copper mine. She’s more conservative than some Democrats but she refuses to join the conservative Democratic coalitions. Kirkpatrick said she’s a daughter of the district.
"Both my mother’s family and my father’s family go back almost a hundred years in the district," Kirkpatrick said. "I was born in the district, raised in the district, raised my family in the district. So that’s the way I see myself."
She grew up in the endless pine forests and pristine lakes of the White Mountains, where her father taught her how to hunt. Kirkpatrick was an ardent gun rights supporter -- at least until two years ago when she says the shooting of former Representative Gabrielle Giffords led her to rethink her views.
"How could it not? I mean Gabby Giffords was a mentor of mine in the state legislature and also in Congress," Kirkpatrick said. "This has hit really close to home."
"The lead issue is the Second Amendment," said Fred Solop, a political science professor at Northern Arizona University.
Her website read: "I pledge to oppose any attempt by the federal government to undermine the Second Amendment and infringe on our constitutional right to bear arms."
Solop said this rural district, with its interest in guns, is conservative. More Republicans have held on to this seat than Democrats. That means -- despite the heavy push for more gun control -- Kirkpatrick has to respect the ideologies of the district, while at the same time looking over her shoulder at her party.
"When we think about the election, it’s a more ideologically driven electorate in these off-year elections -- 2010, 2014," Solop said. "It’s the liberal voters. It’s the conservative voters. It isn’t as many of those voters in the middle."
Those moderate voters do turn out for a presidential election.
Solop pointed out in November, Kirkpatrick won with 48 percent of the vote because a third-party candidate drew away some voters.
"She doesn’t have the support of a majority of voters," Solop said. "She needs to be thinking about 2014 and how to build that support."
Solop said Kirkpatrick has to be visible in her sprawling district -- one of the largest in the nation, all the while attempting to juggle the complex interests of her constituents.
Kirkpatrick said her main focus over the next two years is creating jobs.