Republican voters in one Arizona district are voting in a special primary today in the race to succeed Democratic former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
The 8th District of Arizona became the center of national attention in January 2011 when Giffords was shot in the head at a district event in which six other people were killed. This past January, Giffords resigned from the House in order to focus full time on her recovery.
Ron Barber, a Giffords staffer who was also wounded in the shooting, is running unopposed on the Democratic side. Four Republican candidates are running for the nomination, to be decided tonight when the polls close at 7 p.m. local time (10 p.m. ET).
According to a Republican source in Arizona, the favorite to win the GOP primary tonight is Iraq war veteran Jesse Kelly, Giffords’s opponent in 2010 whom she just barely beat, 49 percent to 47 percent. Kelly has had a head start over the others this time around, simply by virtue of still having a campaign organization upon which to build, which he did quickly once the special election was called.
“He’s had his campaign structure in place,” the source said. “There was a lot of hesitancy about Republicans getting in that race after Gabby was shot, because nobody knew for sure what she was going to do. But I knew everyone was just waiting to make a determination and put things into gear if she decided not to run again, and that’s exactly what happened.”
Also in the race is state Sen. Frank Antenori, also a veteran, who openly contemplated a run for the district well before Giffords made her final decision to leave office. Back in August, after Giffords returned to the House to vote on the bill to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, Antenori questioned Giffords’s fitness to hold office, and criticized the lack of media access to the congresswoman.
“The voters need to make a decision, and how do they do that without information?” Antenori asked The Hill. “They can’t make an assessment of her ability because her staff have denied access to the media. If she’s back, as they claim, why are they still blocking media access to her?
Another veteran in the race is Martha McSally — the first American woman to fly in combat in the Air Force, and the first commander of a fighter squadron.
McSally made headlines in February when responding to then-presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s response to the possible Pentagon relaxation of the rules for women in combat, which he said could compromise missions because of “other types of emotions that are involved.”
“You know, I agree with many of the things that Rick Santorum says,” McSally said. “But when I heard this, I really just wanted to go kick him in the jimmy.”
Finally, there is Dave Sitton. A former University of Arizona rugby coach, he became a football sportscaster, and is known throughout the area as the “voice of the Wildcats.” He has been deeply involved with local charities and community organizations in Tucson. And under normal circumstances, our source noted, Sitton might have otherwise been able to create a better campaign organization and attract establishment support.
However, Sitton and McSally may have been damaged by their inability to get a campaign organization off the ground quickly, and out in the open.
The general election is scheduled for June 12 — which could become a barometer of the two parties’ strengths, looking ahead to the November election.