Jul 28, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Arizona Democrat on his hypercompetitive U.S. House race

Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords poses for a photo with her former intern Daniel Hernandez during the Tucson Premiere Screening Event of “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down.”
Daniel Hernandez with former Democratic U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona. Photo: Chris Coduto/Getty Images for Briarcliff Entertainment

Daniel Hernandez, the former intern who administered first aid to Rep. Gabby Giffords after she was shot in 2011, is running for Congress in a new and highly competitive Arizona district while facing criticism that he's not progressive enough.

Why it matters: The race illustrates the complexities of the Democratic Party's standing, especially with Latinos, some of whom are shifting to the GOP.

The big picture: Hernandez, a state legislator, is seeking a seat in the sprawling 6th district that includes largely liberal Tucson and chunks of conservative southern Arizona.

  • The Republican-controlled Arizona legislature redrew the swing district to slightly favor the GOP.
  • Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D) currently represents much of the area the seat covers in what used to be the hypercompetitive 2nd Congressional district.
  • She is not seeking re-election, and the area often shifts from party to party, having also been held by former Giffords staffer and Democrat Ron Barber and Republican Martha McSally.

State of play: Hernandez has a track record of working with Republicans in the Arizona Legislature — something he says he's proud of.

  • For example, Hernandez co-sponsored an anti-discrimination bill in 2019 with two Republicans and has said he's staunchly pro-Israel, which has put him at odds with some Democratic colleagues.
  • "We have a lot of people who like to get elected [and] who only care about fighting partisan fights," Hernandez tells Axios.
  • "It's really difficult to be able to find people in the middle to be able to find common ground to get things done."

Hernandez said he's focusing on jobs, health care and education. He said it's frustrating that the national Democratic Party primarily focuses on immigration when talking to Latino voters.

  • "I'm a gay Latino who works on gun violence prevention, so I get pushback from all sides all the time."

Hernandez is facing former state senator and environmental attorney Kirsten Engel in the Democratic primary on Aug. 2.

  • Engel has made abortion one of the centerpieces of her campaign and has criticized Hernandez for missing a vote in the state legislature on a bill banning abortion after 15 weeks.
  • Hernandez supporters said the vote was planned knowing that he would be absent and pointed out that he once worked at Planned Parenthood.
  • Engel has also focused on the environment as a top issue.
  • There's only one other candidate in the primary.

Between the lines: Democrats have seized on the loss of abortion rights as a campaign issue. While Latinos tend to support abortion rights, polls show they are mainly concerned about the economy and crime.

  • Latino political consultants say that progressive candidates who focus on social issues like abortion are driving Latino moderates to Republicans.
  • They've also been critical of the party's backing of white candidates over Latino ones in districts that aren't majority Latino.
  • Latinos make up 25% of the population in the district Hernandez is running in, while white people make up 63%.

What they're saying: Kenneth Romero-Cruz, executive director of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators, said Hernandez is a progressive guy, "but yet he's very, very practical."

  • "He knows he has to work bipartisan. And so oftentimes, for the sake of bipartisanship, sometimes you have to give in on a couple of issues in order to win on other issues."

Flashback: Hernandez was honored by President Obama in 2016 for helping Giffords after she was shot in an assassination attempt.

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