Giffords Resignation Sets Up Likely Competitive Special Election

Jessica Taylor January 22, 2012 · 3:48 PM EST

Cong. Gabrielle Giffords announced in a video message Sunday she would resign from Congress this week to focus on her ongoing recovery after an assassination attempt on her life last January.

Giffords has been ever the picture of inspiration and poise, to both Republicans and Democrats, throughout this trying past year, as she’s sought to regain the speech and physical abilities she lost after suffering a near-fatal bullet to the head during a Congress on your Corner event. She said as one of her final acts in office she plans to complete that constituent event that was tragically interrupted.

But her decision to step down now sets up a likely competitive special election in her Tucson-based seat and gives Republicans a pick-up opportunity. While her seat was made more Democratic in redistricting, those new lines won’t take effect until the general election in November, and the upcoming special election will have to be held under the current 8th District lines.

A special primary election will likely be held in mid-to-late April, with a final special election held mid-June. Under Arizona law, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer has 72 hours from the time the congresswoman submits her formal resignation to set the timetable for a special election. A special primary must be 80 to 90 days from the time of the vacancy, and a special general election will follow 50 to 60 days from that. Candidates would have thirty days to file for the seat.

Giffords’ current seat is favorable toward Republicans, though the moderate three-term Democrat she was able to fend off challenges since she won the open seat in 2006, succeeding retiring moderate Republican Cong. Jim Kolbe. In the 2010 GOP wave, she won reelection against Republican Jesse Kelly by just 4,156 votes and was one of the few Blue Dogs to return. Her current district voted 52 percent for its own Sen. John McCain for president in 2008, and went 53 percent for George W. Bush in 2004.

For Republicans, state Sen. Frank Antenori had already been eying a potential run in the redrawn district, and sports broadcaster Dave Sitton has also formed an exploratory committee. Kelly could also run again, or former state Sen. Jonathan Paton, who lost to Kelly in the 2010 primary. Paton has also been mentioned as a candidate in the now-open 1st District, with Cong. Paul Gosar choosing to run in the 4th District instead.

Arizona Democrats have been careful not to mention potential candidates this past year, even in the event Giffords had simply chosen not to run for reelection in 2012. But with the immediacy now of facing a special election, one Arizona Democratic source says you can expect names to begin to circulate in the next few days, but that they’ll be prepared fully to keep the seat in Democratic hands. In the past, Giffords’ chief of staff, Pia Carusone, who kept her office afloat during her injury and recovery, has been mentioned as a potential successor.

While there will be a strong effort from each party in the new race, both Republicans and Democrats will have to remain careful about the tenor the campaign takes on, even without Giffords on the ballot. A strong negative overtone from either party could cause a backlash among voters.

Whoever wins would have to immediately face another primary and general to win reelection in the revamped seat, renumbered the 2nd in 2012. That new district went just under 50 percent for both McCain and Bush, and got about two points better for Democrats.

Still, Giffords is sure to remain in a prominent place in Arizona politics, but how much depends on just how much progress she does make in her recovery. In her video, Giffords says, “I will return and we will work together for Arizona and this great country.” It’s a good bet her political career is far from over, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see her run for the Senate or other office in the future, especially if McCain does retire in 2016.