John McCain, Ann Kirkpatrick battle for Arizona's Latino voters in Senate race

Dan Nowicki and Daniel González, The Republic | 6:04 a.m. MST September 26, 2016

Latino voters are growing in number and share of the overall electorate in Maricopa County, fueled by young voters turning 18, new citizens and those who were previously eligible but only recently registered. Nick Oza/

Both candidates are running radio and digital ads in Spanish as they try to woo the state's growing number of Latino voters.

(Photo: AP)

  • McCain ads emphasize his work on immigration reform
  • Kirkpatrick ads try to tie her opponent to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump
  • Poll says Latino voters don't know Kirkpatrick well

John McCain and Ann Kirkpatrick, rivals in Arizona's U.S. Senate race, are battling each other to attract support from a growing number of Latino voters who could swing a tight race to either candidate.

McCain, the five-term Republican incumbent, has been running radio and digital ads in Spanish that tout his efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform. McCain helped write the 2013 "Gang of Eight" bill, passed by the Senate, that attempted to balance a pathway to citizenship for most of the country's undocumented immigrants with a massive border-security investment and a revamped visa system.

Kirkpatrick, a three-term Democratic U.S. representative from Flagstaff, also has been running ads in Spanish. They accuse McCain of turning his back on Latinos by supporting Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

Trump is a fierce opponent of illegal immigration who at various times in his campaign has advocated for mass deportation. He offended many by characterizing Mexicans coming into the United States without authorization as rapists and drug-runners.

The Arizona race effects larger national challenges for both Republicans and Democrats.

Kirkpatrick needs overwhelming Hispanic support to unseat McCain. But she is not well-known among Latinos, and her campaign could be hurt if they remain less than enthused about Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and stay home in November.

MORE: Latinos spurred to vote by Trump's pledge for a wall

President Barack Obama received 79 percent of the Latino vote in Arizona in 2012, according to a 2014 Latino Decisions report. A recent Arizona Republic/Morrison/Cronkite News poll found that 45.3 percent of Hispanic voters planned to vote for Clinton, 14.6 percent for Trump and 29.8 percent were undecided.

Meanwhile, down-ticket Republicans are worried Trump could drive Latinos away from Republican candidates, even those like McCain who has had strong support from Latinos in the past.

"I have a lot of friends in the Hispanic community, people like Tommy Espinoza and Pete Garcia, a lot of folks that I've known for years," said McCain, referring to two past heads of the organization Chicanos Por La Causa.

"But having said that, there are a lot of younger Hispanics who do not know me who are registering to vote because they are offended by Trump, as you know."

Kirkpatrick said she has been spending time listening to Latinos around the state, calling it an extension of Latino outreach efforts she has conducted in her rural congressional district.

"There's some real concern about this election in the Latino community," Kirkpatrick told reporters at a fundraiser with Latino supporters in Phoenix. "I think that concern is that if we have a president who wants to deport 12 million people elected, that that's going to affect a lot of families, especially in Arizona."

Growing number of Latino voters

Registering new voters in Maricopa County

Esther Rivera, 18, asks people to register to vote at a Fry's parking lot in Phoenix. Nick Oza/The Republic

In 2012, about 400,000 Latinos in Arizona voted, up 37.5 percent from 2008, according to a 2014 report by Latino Decisions.

The number of Latino voters who cast ballots in Arizona this November is expected to grow again, in part because of the rising numbers of Latinos born in the U.S. turning 18 and also because of efforts to drive up the number of Latinos who are registered to vote.

Earlier this year, One Arizona, a coalition of 14 mostly immigrant and Latino rights groups, set out to register 75,000 new voters. After hitting the 75,000 goal in the first week of September, the coalition raised the goal to 125,000 new registered voters, said Ian Danley, the One Arizona director.

The question is how many newly registered Latino voters will come out to vote on Election Day.

Some Latino Democrats predict Trump’s attitudes toward immigrants, including his promise to build a wall on the southern border that Mexico will pay for, will spur more Latinos to the polls in November.

“It lends itself to a high Democratic vote,” said Danny Ortega, a Phoenix lawyer and community leader.

Recent polls show McCain leading Kirkpatrick by double digits. But Ortega, a Democrat, believes a larger turnout of Latino voters could hurt McCain, especially if the race tightens.

“John McCain has a good relationship with a lot of Latinos in this community because of his efforts on immigration reform, but I think that’s been destroyed by his support of Donald Trump,” Ortega said.

“I think that the number of (Latino) people who are going to consider what John McCain has done in the past is going to be minimized by his support for Donald Trump and what Donald Trump stands for,” he added.

Besides relentlessly linking McCain to Trump, Kirkpatrick is trying to attack McCain's brand as an immigration reformer.
Her campaign repeatedly has drawn attention to the Washington Post's revelation that McCain's campaign website delivers a pro-immigration-reform message in Spanish but emphasizes border security in English, characterizing it as a sign he is duplicitous on the issue.

The senator's backers, meanwhile, counter that, despite six years in Congress, Kirkpatrick has never been a significant Capitol Hill player on immigration. They note that McCain has publicly disagreed with Trump on various aspects of Trump’s immigration agenda and over his negative characterization of Mexican immigrants.

McCain has Latino support from both parties

Sen. John McCain meets supporters during a campaign rally in May 6 at his campaign headquarters in Phoenix. (Photo: Mark Henle/The Republic)

Yasser Sanchez, a Republican immigration attorney from Mesa who supports McCain, said Kirkpatrick is trying to tie McCain to Trump because she has no accomplishments of her own in trying to enact immigration reform and she is largely unknown among Latino voters in Arizona.

Still, he said he believes Kirkpatrick’s attempts to link McCain to Trump has hurt the senator with some Latino voters.

“Is it affecting John McCain with Latinos? I think, yeah,” Sanchez said. “I have people ask me, ‘Wait. You support John McCain? He’s a racist. He thinks just like Donald Trump.'”

“I tell them, that’s not true, and then I explain why,” Sanchez said, pointing out that McCain has supported immigration reform even when it was not politically popular or expedient.

Espinoza, a Democrat, praised McCain’s record of supporting immigration reform and his opposition to abortion, which “to me as a Catholic is very important.”

“I stand behind him 100 percent,” he said. “I believe he is going to win and I think he’s going to have a strong support base from our Latino community.”

Latinos don't know Kirkpatrick well

U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick speaks with supporters at a community event at El Portal restaurant in Phoenix on Sept. 16, 2016. (Photo: Ben Moffat/The Republic)

Kirkpatrick struggles with name recognition among Latino voters, especially young voters. Their unfamiliarity with Kirkpatrick was reflected in an August poll by the Arizona Republic/Morrison/Cronkite News.

Latino respondents said they viewed McCain and Kirkpatrick nearly equally. Forty-two percent said they had a "favorable" or "very favorable" opinion of McCain and 45.1 percent said they had a "favorable" or "very favorable" opinion of Kirkpatrick.

However, 32.4 percent of Latinos said they "did not know" how they felt about Kirkpatrick, compared to 1.8 percent of Latinos for McCain.

“I think if I was to bring up her name, no one would be familiar with it; whereas if I were to bring up John McCain, they would know,” said Madeline Valencia, 23, a Democrat, referring to her circle of friends.

Valencia, who was serving drinks at the fundraiser for Kirkpatrick, said she was only familiar with Kirkpatrick because she works at Torres Multicultural Communications, which hosted the event.

“I think if it wasn’t for that, I probably wouldn’t have heard of her,” Valencia said.

Kirkpatrick could also be hurt if some Latino Democrats who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 stay home in November.

Ortega said that at the end of the day, however, undecided Latino voters will come out for Clinton because of their dislike for Trump, and that will help Kirkpatrick.

“I think it will help the ticket in a large way because of Senator McCain’s support for Donald Trump,” Ortega said. “I think that John McCain had to do what he had to do because of the Republican voters and it was a no-win situation for him.”