Arizona 8: Caution—Special Results Ahead

Jessica Taylor June 13, 2012 · 11:45 AM EDT

Democrat Ron Barber’s win over Republican Jesse Kelly in the Arizona special election to succeed former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) should boost Democratic morale but does little, if anything, to change the outlook for control of the House this fall.

Of the special elections held this cycle, this was the truest swing district, and one that both parties had heavily targeted in the past. But its circumstances were unique, involving a nominee and a former representative who were wounded in a highly publicized attack.

Democrats had plenty of opposition research to use against Kelly, given the treasure trove of video and quotes he had from his failed 2010 bid against Giffords, but Barber also had the advantage of running in the shadow of a former Member who was wildly popular and who continues to recover from an attack that almost took her life

Kelly ran a better campaign than he did last cycle, but still was not an appealing candidate to anyone other than partisan and strongly ideological voters.

In an interview with RPR (and in similar interviews with other media outlets), Kelly refused to answer questions, sticking to only talking points on “jobs and the economy” and insisting that he would not even reflect on what he learned from his 2010 race against Giffords. Republicans didn’t expect Barber’s margin to be so large, but none of them were confident that Kelly would win either.

Democrats needed and got a win yesterday, but this was merely a hold for them. Democrats were favored to win two additional seats in Arizona (the 1st and 9th districts) before Tuesday, and they are still favored to win them in November.

Republicans will have a steeper climb to obtain this seat in the fall, when the 8th District is renumbered to become the 2nd District and becomes about two points more Democratic. But after Kelly’s two losses, he will surely have a more difficult time winning his party’s nomination again. It’s quite possible that the GOP establishment will line up behind former Air Force pilot Martha McSally ahead of the August 28 GOP primary for this year’s regular election.

Kelly defeated McSally 35 percent to 25 percent in the special primary, and he will be on the ballot again, but she had the closing momentum despite her late start and received more votes on Election Day. But McSally, the first female pilot to fly in combat, has an opportunity to capture the attention of GOP supporters and donors. While generally conservative, she has a pragmatic streak, evidenced by her willingness to repeal the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

For now, the 2nd District looks to Lean to the Democrats, though that could change after Republicans nominate a challenger to Barber.