Arizona 8 Special: Giffords’ Shadow, Not Foreshadow

by Jessica Taylor June 5, 2012 · 1:54 PM EDT

On paper, the Arizona special election should be, and likely is, razor tight. But good luck finding another special election with such unique circumstances as the vote to succeed former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who resigned in January after she was shot at a constituent event a year earlier.

Going into next Tuesday’s vote, observers from both sides say their candidate is slightly ahead-- but all private polling has the race within the margin of error between GOP nominee Jesse Kelly, who came within two points of Giffords in 2010, and Democrat Ron Barber, Giffords’ former district director who was also injured in the shooting that killed six and injured more than a dozen others.

Both Republicans and Democrats have seen this race to replace Giffords as a way of testing out the messages they’ll use in this fall’s congressional races. For Republicans, it’s a continuing theme about Obamacare, the economy and high gas prices. It’s also about tying Democratic Congressional candidates to both President Obama and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi -- a strategy that was highly effective in netting them 63 seats in 2010. Of course, Pelosi’s visibility has been dramatically reduced since Republicans won the House almost two years ago.

For Democrats, the race involves slamming Republicans for supporting Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget (including proposed reforms to Medicare) -- a message that helped them win an upset special election over a year ago in New York’s 26th District, and that they hope will resonate in this senior-heavy district.

But the unknown variable in the contest, which isn’t being talked about nearly as much as many had assumed, is the impact Giffords and the horrific shooting that took place nearly 18 months ago will have on the race. While Giffords and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, have endorsed her former aide, sent fundraising pleas on his behalf and been involved behind the scenes, she hasn’t appeared with him since the kickoff. She will finally return to stage with him at a rally this weekend.

Observers have wondered whether Giffords would appear in a final ad for Barber, but so far she has not. And even the final rally may be too little too late -- as much as 70 percent of voters are expected to vote early, with a substantial 116,000 ballots already returned for the summer special election -- about half of those requested as of last week. Republicans have a nine point registration advantage in the district, but so far they only have a three percent edge in ballots returned.

Giffords rightfully evokes strong emotions, but Democrats were forced to find a balance between using and overusing Giffords (or Kelly), since she's still undergoing therapy. Republicans too have had to be cautious of how they went after Barber, also a victim in the shooting. Their attacks have stayed policy-driven, but even their sustained negative ads did raise some eyebrows.

The most obvious use of the shooting was in an ad released this week by the Democratic House Majority PAC. In the video, which is labeled from 2010 and comes that contest, Kelly lambasts Giffords is a “hero of nothing.” Since Republicans cannot criticize Giffords, and Barber has no legislative record, all Republicans can do is to try to tie Barber to Obama. The NRCC’s final ad uses Barber’s backtrack after a debate, that “of course” he would vote for Obama.

Strategists in both parties privately admit there’s no way to measure the impact of the tragedy on voters as they decide how to cast their votes. While people may say they will decide this race based on its merits and issues, it’s impossible to know whether a strong “sympathy vote” will benefit Giffords’ former aide.

Special elections are often hailed as harbingers of things to come in electoral politics, and that’s not entirely false. But a better way to measure them is to look at them a snapshot in time and take into consideration the unique factors that influenced each.

In last year’s New York 26th vote, Democrats were successful in capitalizing on the furor of the Ryan budget and Medicare, but Republicans also had a weak nominee and the presence of a third party candidate complicated the race even more.

In the September contest to replace former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D) in New York’s 9th District, it was Democrats who were saddled with a poor candidate as Republicans sought to make the race a referendum on Obama’s Israel policies. But the same day in a special election in Nevada’s 2nd District, Republicans cruised to a 20 point win to keep the seat in their hands after spending heavily early to combat the Democrats’ Medicare message.

In this Arizona special, outside GOP groups have also outspent Democratic groups in their efforts to take back the seat. But Democrats have continued hitting Kelly on Medicare and Social Security -- and were armed with an array of 2010 footage, including Kelly saying the entitlement programs were “the biggest Ponzi scheme in history.”

Kelly took a page from Nevada special election winner Mark Amodei and used his grandfather in his ads saying that, of course, he would protect Medicare and charging that, in fact, Democrats’ health care plans would gut the program. But even some Republicans privately admit that Democrats’ ads have probably been more effective, and that Kelly has been an opposition researcher’s dream.

No matter the outcome next Tuesday, each party will find a predictable message. If their nominee loses, Republicans will point toward the unique nature of the situation and the fact that Democrats already held the seat. Democrats, on the other hand, will argue that, at its heart, this is a GOP seat that the moderate Giffords had managed to hold onto with her unique appeal. If they win, Democrats will then assert that Barber’s victory proves Democrats can still win in red territory and that the House Republican agenda is damaging GOP chances. Republicans will say failing to win this type of seat is further proof that Democratic goals of taking back the House remain a long shot. 

As with every special election, once the results are in, it’s best to take a deep breath.