Arizona 8 Special: Table Set for Giffords’ Seat

Jessica Taylor April 18, 2012 · 11:59 AM EDT

The nominees are in place for the highly competitive Arizona special election to replace former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D), as 2010 GOP nominee Jesse Kelly cruised to an expected primary win on Tuesday. 

Kelly took 36 percent of the vote. His next closest competitor was retired Air Force officer and political newcomer Martha McSally with 25 percent. State Sen. Frank Antenori netted 22 percent, while Arizona Wildcats broadcaster Dave Sitton took 17 percent.

Kelly will now face Giffords’ former district director Ron Barber, who was unopposed in the Democratic primary, in a June 12 special general election. Giffords announced in January that she was resigning in order to focus on her rehabilitation after she was shot in the head during a January 2011 constituent event. Barber was also shot in the face and leg in the tragedy, that killed six and injured more than a dozen others.

With the compressed primary now over, look for this race to play a central role in shaping the congressional landscape and for both parties to pour large sums into the Tucson-based district. However, with the tragedy still casting a pall on the race, the campaigns will have to be mindful of their tone.

On paper, Republicans have a better chance at flipping the district this summer than in November. The current 8th District was a perpetual battleground seat that leaned Republican, but the moderate Giffords mounted strong campaigns that led to narrow wins since her first election in 2006. The current district gave its own GOP Sen. John McCain 52 percent in 2008 and George W. Bush took 53 percent in 2004. But the redrawn 2nd District (where the regularly scheduled election will be held) got about two points better for Democrats, giving both McCain and Bush just under 50 percent.

Kelly began the special election as the clear frontrunner on the Republican side with distinct advantages, given his name ID and ability to raise money from past donors. A Marine Corps veteran, Kelly lost by just 4,156 votes (less than 2 points) to Giffords in 2010 after upsetting establishment favorite Jonathan Paton in the GOP primary.

Kelly had been preparing to announce another run just before the Tucson shootings, and in the immediate aftermath, his 2010 campaign rhetoric and tactics came under increased scrutiny, specifically for holding a fundraising rally before where voters could shoot an M16. He’s dismissed those as irrelevant, and in a March meeting with the Report, repeatedly declined to talk about the 2010 campaign and said his campaign would “stick to the issues” and wouldn’t discuss specific differences between himself and his opponents.

Still, Republicans have, and will continue to, tread lightly in how they can criticize Barber and they will be watching Kelly’s campaign closely, Even a slight misstep or out of context comment could have blowback effects. Strategists say they’ve focused on needling Barber on policy positions and will continue to do so, and after Kelly’s victory, the NRCC statement looked to paint Barber as “rubber stamp” of Democratic policies. But many even acknowledge empathy will play a role, especially based on how involved Giffords and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly (no relation to Jesse), are for Barber. We rate the special election as a pure toss-up.

If Kelly loses in June, don’t be surprised if the GOP establishment starts clammoring for another candidate to take on Barber in the fall, and McSally could be the beneficicary. McSally and the other GOP contenders have indicated they intend to run in the regular August 28 primary. Filing for that race closes May 30.

When she made a trip to DC last month, McSally impressed political consultants and media alike, and several GOP strategists believe she’s the type of candidate with a strong resume that can win a more Democratic 2nd District. She simply didn’t have enough time to catch fire in this primary or catch up to Kelly’s built-in name ID and money advantage in the special. The first woman to fly a combat mission, McSally successfully challenged a requirement that women serving overseas had to wear religious dress off base, taking her case all the way to the Supreme Court in McSally v. Rumsfeld.

For Democrats, Barber was initially believed to be running as a placeholder before November, but now he’s indicated he’ll run for a full term in November. Most potential Democratic candidates have stepped aside, though state Sen. Matt Heinz and non-profit founder Nomiki Konst are still running.

Without a primary, Barber has been able to conserve his cash. Through March 28, he’d raised nearly $550,000 and over $463,000 of that left to spend. Kelly raised $210,000 during the same period but had just under $50,000 in the bank.