WASHINGTON — Arizona Reps. Ron Barber and Ann Kirkpatrick touted their designation this week as being among the Democrats most likely to buck their party in congressional votes.
For Barber and Kirkpatrick, the ranking – they were in the top 10 – reflects the will of their constituents, which is somewhere between the Republican and Democratic parties on issues.
But one political scientist said it’s more like being “between a rock and a hard place.”
A National Journal analysis of 86 votes in this Congress found that Barber voted against the party 16 times and Kirkpatrick 15 times, making them the fifth- and eighth-most contrary Democrats in the House.
The average House member split with his or her party on seven votes, by contrast.
“The main thing is they (Barber and Kirkpatrick) both represent swing districts,” said Barbara Norander, a professor at the University of Arizona School of Government and Public Policy.
“There is an even match between Republicans and Democrats. They have to keep their Republican constituents in mind,” Norander said.
The National Journal said the lawmakers on its top-10 list represented closely divided districts like Barber’s 2nd District, in southeast Arizona, and Kirkpatrick’s 1st District, which sprawls over much of the north and east of the state. The New York Times listed their districts as among the most-competitive in the nation during the 2012 election.
Norander said independent voter registration and more competitive redistricting have accentuated the state’s greater diversity.
Kirkpatrick and Barber said they are simply voting with their constituents, who care more about issues than party labels.
Kirkpatrick, of Flagstaff, said her votes have more to do with the size and diversity of her district than her own party affiliation.
“I always put my constituents first,” she said. “I just really listen to the district. It’s where I grew up.”
Barber, of Tucson, said he is just making good on his campaign promise to “try to find common ground and accomplish things across the aisle.” He acknowledged that his district is competitive, but also said the number of registered independents is rapidly growing.
“For some reason they have decided not to align themselves with either major party,” Barber said of independents. “What they have seen from the parties is a gridlock.”
Arizonans have always been independent thinkers and they don’t like to limit themselves to a single party mindset, said Barber, who has lived in the state since his boyhood when Arizona was predominantly Democratic.
“For me it is not about being a member of the party, it is about back home,” he said. “One of the things I love about Arizona is the independent thinking residents have.”
Since Barber’s boyhood, the state has swung from Democratic to heavily Republican and is now slowly moving from a red state back toward a blue state.
James Thurber, the director of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, said the state is indeed becoming purple, but he thinks Kirkpatrick’s and Barber’s voting patterns have more to do with getting re-elected in a still-red state.
“Their key constituency is more conservative,” Thurber said. “They are between a rock and a hard place.”
Their splits with the party can hurt how they are seen by Democratic leaders in Washington and by more-liberal voters back home, he said.
Thurber said Arizona is on “shifting sands,” as more Latinos vote and the parties become more polarized. That makes moderate Democrats and Republicans an “endangered species,” and Kirkpatrick and Barber may not be able to vote across the aisle as often, he said.
“It’s hard to lead, it’s hard to persuade your constituents to go a certain way when they are ahead of you,” he said.
An Arizona Republican Party spokesman said both lawmakers are Democratic at heart and that they only vote Republican in “trivial areas.”
“These folks are both in very competitive districts,” said Tim Sifert. “That tells you why they are playing the political game.”
But an Arizona Democratic Party spokesman said their votes just show that “the Democratic Party is really the party of the big tent.”
“100 percent of us are not going to agree 100 percent of the time,” said Frank Camacho, the spokesman.
The competitiveness of their districts definitely influence Barber’s and Kirkpatrick’s votes, he said. But in Arizona, “the vast majority is in the vast middle,” Camacho said.
“On the basic core issues that define Democrats, I think we stand together on that,” he said. “I don’t think there is anything wrong with them voting their conscience.”