Jesse Kelly ran guns blazing against former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in 2010 — literally — he invited supporters to a “Get on Target for Victory” event where they could shoot a fully loaded M16 with the candidate. This time around, the circumstances that led to the June 12 special election to succeed Giffords has necessitated a much different campaign.
Ron Barber, the Democratic nominee who is running at Giffords’s behest, has made a point of conducting a civil campaign — he wears a pin on his lapel with the word “civility” on it. Kelly, who was criticized for his aggressive behavior in the previous campaign, doesn’t want to come across as mean-spirited either. Both candidates have taken on a more civil, issues-oriented tone.
“This isn’t about demonizing anyone,” said Jessica Schultz, a spokesperson for the Barber campaign. “It is about highlighting differences in policy opinions.”
“We’ve just been focusing on the issues,” Kelly campaign spokesman John Ellinwood told TPM.
“I think it’s been less negative than it would have otherwise been,” said Wes Gullett, a Republican strategist in Arizona.
“The two of them have conducted themselves in a civil manner,” said Barry Dill, a Democratic consultant who served as Janet Napolitano’s chief strategist during her three statewide races in Arizona, and has contributed to Barber’s campaign. “Two years ago, you could not say the same for Jesse Kelly.”
Kelly, an Iraq War veteran and businessman who lost to Giffords in one of the tightest races of the 2010 cycle, is not the same candidate he was in that race. Rhetorically, he’s avoiding the negative tone that often marked his 2010 campaign. Gone are the fundraisers that offer donors a chance to “Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly,” for obvious reasons. And there are no more references to Social Security and Medicare as “Ponzi schemes,” two programs Kelly no longer said he wants to “eliminate.”
“I support preserving, protecting and strengthening Social Security and Medicare. I do not support privatizing, eliminating or phasing out these programs in any way,” his website reads. Kelly’s campaign said nothing has changed, however. “What we said before and what we’re saying now is we have to protect the benefits that seniors have earned while giving choices to future generations,” Kelly said in an appearance on MSNBC Wednesday. “This is another lie that the other side has told.”
“It’s real obvious,” said Tuscon Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, a Barber supporter, that Kelly is “coached.” “What I’m looking at is what was said in 2010 versus 2012,” said Rothschild, who sees differences “certainly some on policy and some on demeanor.”
But Gullett believes any shifts on policy is simply a result of Kelly becoming a more polished candidate. People “develop new ways to talk and explain their issues,” Gullett said.
Dill is less forgiving. “This is a different Jesse Kelly than we had two years ago, both in temperament and in tenor,” he said. “This is definitely a Jesse Kelly redo.”
Outside groups, however, have agreed to no such truce.
With the candidates making an express effort to be cordial, the negative campaigning has fallen to the party committees and outside super PACs.
“There’s been a real influx of outside money dumped into that race for negative purposes,” said Dill. “My observation is what Kelly’s doing is letting outside groups do their work. I mean, they’ve called Ron Barber just about everything but a child molester in this race.”
Kelly has raised $700,000 so far, just over half what Barber’s campaign has brought in, and outside super PACs as well as the National Republican Congressional Committee are picking up the slack. Along with the group Citizens United, the NRCC will spend $1.4 million on ads, according to Politico — making up the bulk of the ads coming from the Republican side. The Barber campaign says it is responsible for the bulk of the spending on the Democratic side, though it has gotten help from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and total spending will hit $1.6 million by next Tuesday.
“Issues matter in this race, and southern Arizonans deserve to know that Ron Barber supported Obamacare, the cap-and-trade energy tax and Obama’s reelection,” NRCC spokesman Daniel Scarpinato, said in a statement to TPM. “With Barber trying to hide those facts, it’s been important to make sure voters know the truth.” A native Arizonan, Scarpinato has spent time in the Tucson area over the past month to help the Kelly campaign and regularly fills press inboxes with attacks on Barber.
Schultz decried such attempts to “nationalize” an election that should be about southern Arizona. “Ron’s never been a rubber stamp for anyone.”
Tying Barber to votes that occurred when he was Giffords’s district director are beyond the pale, Democrats charge. “This spring Republicans began to spend money attacking Ron Barber for positions he doesn’t hold or votes he didn’t take and it hasn’t stopped since,” Jesse Ferguson, a DCCC spokesman, told TPM. “Our efforts have held tea party candidate Jesse Kelly accountable for his own radical ideas that he said on tape — like privatizing, phasing out and eliminating Social Security and Medicare.”
But Democrats have also waded into negative territory. One ad, bankrolled by House Majority PAC as part of a $160,000 ad buy in the district, uses footage of Kelly attacking Giffords during the 2010 race, months before the shooting that killed six and gravely injured the congresswoman, and Barber. “And now she stands there with that smile and pretends to be some kind of hometown hero,” Kelly said in the clip. “She’s a hero of nothing!”
The Kelly campaign wouldn’t say whether it felt the ad was misleading — Ellinwood said only, “This race is about Ron Barber’s support for Obamacare and Obama’s cap-and-trade energy tax. We will remain focused on the issues important to the families of Southern Arizona.”
Kelly, however, said outright that believes the ad was unfair. “That was 2010,” he said on MSNBC Wednesday. “It was several months before the tragedy and it is taken completely out of context and it’s meant to mislead the voters and it’s sad to see the Democratic Party trying to exploit the tragedy. No other way to describe it.”
In 2010, the close-fought contest was decided by just 4,000 votes, and it is shaping up to be similarly tight this time around. By the time the election rolls around on Tuesday, a significant number of voters will have already voted due to a long early-voting period. Kelly has already filed signatures to run for the seat — which will be revamped as a more liberal-leaning 2nd Congressional District after redistricting takes effect — again in November.
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.