Arizona voters will head to the polls Tuesday for a special election unlike any other — a rare instance in which the politician being replaced, former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, is respected and beloved.
The candidates are Giffords’s former district director Ron Barber, and Iraq War veteran Jesse Kelly, who narrowly lost to Giffords in 2010.
Many special congressional elections to take place in the last few years were spurred by destructive scandals that forced a sitting member to resign in disgrace, a move that often brings ridicule upon a district. The opposite is true here — the 8th District drew the country’s sympathy and support as the site of a national tragedy, and Giffords became a national symbol of resilience and inspiration.
Giffords survived after being shot in the head at a district event near Tucson in January 2011. She resigned her seat a little over a year later in January 2012, in order to focus full time on her recovery. Barber was also wounded in the shooting, and six people were killed. This past weekend, Giffords made a rare public appearance to campaign with Barber.
A poll released Monday from Democratic-leaning firm Public Policy Polling, showed Barber with a 12-point lead.
The unique circumstances that prompted the election have led to a relatively civil campaign between the candidates, but it also means emotions have run much higher than most special elections, given the sensitive nature of the situation.
“It would be nice to see the results first! But surely there is a sympathy vote that helps Barber. How big and powerful is it? We’ll find out,” University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato told TPM. “It helps that his opponent is the same one faced by Giffords last time out. That reinforces the Giffords-Barber tie. And just about everyone knows — and it is repeated in every story — that there is a special election because of the shootings.”
Indeed, a major Democratic super PAC has made hay of Kelly’s attacks on Giffords from 2010. The House Majority PAC is running an ad that slams Kelly for having called Giffords a “hero of nothing” during his 2010 campaign — a comment that pre-dated the shooting, but is now coming back to haunt him.
In response, Kelly charges that Democrats are playing on people’s emotions. “To try to exploit a tragedy to win a special election is one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen in my life,” Kelly said Saturday. “It’s exactly what they’re doing.”
Barber campaign spokesman Rodd McLeod downplayed any residual benefits the candidate might get from being closely tied to Giffords and to the shooting itself.
“Ron Barber has received a very positive reception from the people of this district,” McLeod told TPM. “And it’s not only that he was district director for Gabby, but he’s spent his whole life in this community. He’s rooted here, he’s raised a family, he’s really been a community service person for decades. And that’s something that cuts across party lines.”
McLeod cited Barber’s 20-year service at the state’s Division of Developmental Disabilities, where he eventually became director. “For families who went through really wrenching stuff, they know that Ron Barber is someone they could count on,” McLeod said.
Republicans, on the other hand, firmly believe the circumstances of the vacancy are having an effect on the race.
“It has made the whole atmosphere surrounding the campaign a very emotional situation. and so given that, emotions are very high in this. It will have an impact,” said Shane Wikfors, communications director for the Arizona Republican Party. “But I will also argue that many people understand what is at stake in terms of the long run, that the election of Ron Barber would be more of the same Obama-Pelosi-type politics.”
Wikfors predicted a Kelly win — and disputed the validity of the Public Policy Polling poll — on the basis that the district should trend Republican. But he acknowledged that Kelly’s previous race against Giffords might be shaping some voters’ opinions of the candidate.
“I think that Kelly came out of the 2010 election narrowly missing that opportunity, I think people are somewhat upset about him coming back again for a redo on this. So that figures into the equation, in addition to the whole atmosphere of the shooting,” Wikfors said. “It is an unusual election, not simply because it’s a special election, but because of the circumstances that necessitated it.”