Republican Jonathan Paton's official Southern Arizona campaign headquarters are tucked into an ordinary strip mall on West Ina Road, but most of the Congressional District 1 candidate's campaign has been run on the road.
"I don't really have an office," said Paton, 41, during a recent interview at his campaign headquarters. "My office is my Honda."
Paton, a former state lawmaker who made an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2010, has spent many hours behind the wheel as he's gotten to know CD 1, which is roughly the size of Pennsylvania and stretches from the Utah border to the northern edge of Cochise County. Oro Valley, Marana, Flagstaff, much of the Grand Canyon, much of rural eastern Arizona and a dozen Native American reservations fall within its recently redrawn boundaries.
The district is home to roughly 140,000 Democrats, 112,000 Republicans and 110,000 voters registered as independents or with third parties. Despite the Democratic slant, Paton has gained momentum in his campaign against Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick, 62, a former state lawmaker who represented much of the area in Congress for one term before being ousted by Republican Paul Gosar in 2010.
In recent days, Paton has landed endorsements from both The Arizona Republic and the Arizona Daily Star. A poll by the (admittedly biased) National Republican Congressional Committee showed him leading Kirkpatrick, 50 percent to 45 percent. And the NRCC recently upped its TV buy in the district, from $900,000 to more than $1.3 million.
That spending has allowed Paton to keep pace with Kirkpatrick on the airwaves, even though she has raised far more money than he has. Records show that as of Aug. 8, Kirkpatrick had raised about $1.4 million for her campaign, while Paton had raised $611,000.
"Ann started the day after she lost, and she just continued running, so she was able to raise more," Paton said.
That cash has been vital to both campaigns, with much of it being spent on a fierce air war on Phoenix television stations. Although the city itself does not fall within CD 1, the Phoenix stations reach many of the rural areas in the district.
Two distinct caricatures have emerged from the advertisements. Kirkpatrick—with help from the Arizona Democratic Party and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee—has painted Paton as "Payday Paton," based on his lobbying work for the payday-loan industry.
Meanwhile, Paton and the NRCC have tagged the Democratic candidate as "Kickback Kirkpatrick" in a series of ads highlighting an Arizona Republic article that revealed Kirkpatrick spent more than $100,000 during her last days in Congress, including bonuses for her staff.
"Given that they are bankrolling our payday-loan-lobbyist opponent, the NRCC has as much credibility on payroll issues as Todd Akin has on women's issues," said Kirkpatrick spokeswoman Jennifer Johnson. "The fact is, Ann sponsored a bill to cut congressional pay, and when Congress refused to pass it, she went ahead and cut her own pay. And at the end of her term, Ann's office returned more than $100,000 in unused funds back to the treasury. Her office employees were paid for their long hours, hard work and accrued leave."
Paton has hammered Kirkpatrick for voting for the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, and has vowed to vote to repeal the health-care reform package if elected to Congress.
Kirkpatrick has defended her vote in favor of the law.
"It's not perfect," Kirkpatrick said at a Monday, Oct. 8, debate at the Legacy Traditional School in northwest Tucson. But she highlighted the upside of the legislation, including new regulations that prevent insurance companies from refusing to cover people with pre-existing conditions, and allow young adults to stay on their parents' insurance until age 26.
At the debate, Kirkpatrick frequently referenced her "three-part plan" for education, environmental protection and job creation through emerging technology like wind and solar.
Paton's jobs plan also had three parts.
"My job plan is to reduce taxes, stop regulating the industry in this state, and leave people alone," said Paton, adding that the federal government had been stifling jobs, not creating them.
Paton argued that government efforts to create jobs in wind- and solar-energy production were a multi-billion-dollar failure.
"We should be able to get that done with the private sector, not the government trying to play winners and losers," Paton said.
Kirkpatrick called for a "national energy strategy" that included emerging tech tailored to each region.
"Arizona should be a global leader of creating wind and solar, so let's continue to work on these ideas," she said.
The candidates also split sharply on the topic of abortion. Paton is staunchly pro-life and would vote to ban abortion in most instances. But in the wake of Missouri U.S. Senate candidate and current Rep. Todd Akin's comments about "legitimate rape" earlier this year, Paton clarified his response to a questionnaire from the Christian-conservative organization Center for Arizona Policy, saying that he would not support banning abortion in cases of rape or incest.
Kirkpatrick does not support banning abortions, according to spokeswoman Johnson.
"Ann is pro-choice," Johnson told the Weekly via email earlier this year. "She believes that medical decisions belong between a woman and her doctor, without the government interfering."
The third candidate on the ballot in November is Kim Allen, 72, from Arizona City.
"I'm just a ticked-off senior citizen who believes the Republican and Democratic Parties are just totally rotten to the core," Allen said after the Oct. 8 debate.
During the forum, he admitted he hasn't given much thought to victory.
"If I win this election," Allen said, "I'm going to Vegas."