FLAGSTAFF, Arizona — Arizona’s Congressional District 1 is aptly numbered. The sprawling district, larger than the entire state of Pennsylvania, is the number-one priority of both the state’s Republican and Democratic parties. It has also caught the eye of Washington, because it’s one of only a handful of competitive congressional races in the country.
Republican Rick Renzi enjoys the benefits of incumbency, but he faces a much better-known and better-financed opponent this time around: Paul Babbitt, former mayor of Flagstaff, longtime county supervisor in northern Arizona, and brother of former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.
The two candidates are a study in contrasts: Babbitt is an intellectual, Renzi has a large physical presence and stands out in a crowd. Babbitt comes from a storied northern Arizona pioneer family; Renzi has lived most of the past two decades in Virginia. Renzi’s first term in Congress was his first stint in politics; Babbitt has been a politician most of his adult life.
Their positions on the environment also couldn’t be any more different. The League of Conservation Voters has named Renzi to its "Dirty Dozen" list, rating him just 5 percent on its environmental issue voting scorecard. The League cites Renzi’s support of the Bush administration’s energy bill, as well as his vote for exemptions to the Clean Water Act for oil and gas exploration.
Babbitt, on the other hand, has proposed a $2 billion wind energy plan for northern Arizona, and is on record supporting the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and higher fuel-efficiency standards for new cars. Babbitt’s name recognition, $1 million war chest and the region’s demographics have given Democrats high hopes. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans here by 35,000; there are an additional 70,000 independents. It’s the only one of Arizona’s eight districts where one of the two major parties doesn’t enjoy a huge registration advantage — in political terms, it’s called a "fair fight" district. "It’s one of our best opportunities to topple a Republican incumbent," says Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Greg Speed in Washington, D.C.
Renzi, however, has proved an astute politician in his first term. With the help of a majority party keen on having him re-elected, he’s brought back hundreds of thousands of dollars to the district. Renzi also outpolls Babbitt on how he would handle traditional Democratic issues such as health care and education. "Renzi has been very good about getting support in Congress for things like veterans’ benefits," explains Kristi Hagen, acting director of the social research laboratory at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. "He’s been successful in getting his name out there."
The result is somewhat surprising. In a Democratic-leaning district, a well-financed, well-known Democrat is running 11 points behind in Hagen’s latest poll, to a Republican whom Speed calls "one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country."
Plenty of surprises
District 1 was drawn in 2001 by an independent commission, one of two new seats Arizona gained because of its surging population. For decades, rural Arizonans had clamored for their own voice in Congress, and the commission obliged. District 1 is the only one of Arizona’s eight congressional districts that doesn’t extend into Phoenix or Tucson.
The result is an incredibly diverse voter base that includes Native Americans in northern Arizona and Hispanics in the southern part of the state. The district encompasses former mining communities, the liberal college town of Flagstaff and the booming, conservative-leaning Prescott. Renzi, who beat Democrat George Cordova in 2002 by a slim 3 percent margin, has logged 100,000 miles campaigning in the past year alone. He’s made repeated visits to the Navajo Nation, where he estimates he won only 8 percent of the vote two years ago. "But we’ve seen a real turnaround up there," Renzi says. "We believe we’re going to surprise some people, and do well."
Renzi has been endorsed by many prominent Navajos, including former chairman Peter MacDonald and several members of the tribal council. He’s also won the backing of San Carlos Apache Tribal Chairwoman Kathy Kitcheyan. "We typically vote Democratic," acknowledges Kitcheyan, "but this is a case where we have confidence in Mr. Renzi. It doesn’t matter (what party he is). We want to keep people in office who are going to work on Native American issues."
Although two-thirds of likely voters have a favorable impression of Renzi, according to the latest poll conducted by Hagen’s Social Research Laboratory, a fifth of likely voters say they’re undecided. And the Babbitt campaign is banking on a large chunk of those undecided voters going Democratic. Carlos Vizcarra, Babbitt’s campaign manager, believes the race will tighten as Babbitt continues to get his name out there. He cites the District 1 race two years ago, when Renzi enjoyed a 12 percent lead in the polls just days before the election, but won by only three percent.
NAU’s Kristi Hagen says Babbitt needs to campaign, well, more like Renzi. "Babbitt needs to be a gregarious handshaker," she says. "He needs to do full-scale canvassing, have his voice heard on radio, on TV. He has to really … go full-force now."
The author directs the Indian Country News Bureau in Flagstaff, a project of KNAU, Arizona Public Radio, and KUYI, Hopi Radio.