Why race to replace Gabrielle Giffords matters nationally

Arizona's Eighth District votes Tuesday to elect a replacement for Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. A victory by aide Ron Barber would give Democrats a break from bad news.

By , Staff writer

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    Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (2nd l.) makes an appearance onstage in Tucson, Ariz., Saturday in support of her former aide, Democrat Ron Barber (2nd r.), who is running for her former post.
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The special election Tuesday to replace Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona is largely about unique local circumstances.

It’s about filling the remaining six months of a beloved congresswoman’s term, following the assassination attempt in January 2011 that left Ms. Giffords gravely wounded but alive – and now continuing her recovery.

It’s about her aide, Ron Barber, who was also wounded in the mass shooting and is now running to replace her following her resignation.

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And it’s about Jesse Kelly, the tea-party-backed Republican nominee and former Marine, who ran against Giffords in 2010 and lost by about 1 percentage point in a district with 26,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats.

The only public survey on the race, released Monday by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling (PPP), shows Mr. Barber ahead by a wide margin, 53 percent to 41 percent. Assuming Barber does win, the Democrats will shout from the rooftops.

“Democrats are headed for a victory in tomorrow's special election to replace Gabby Giffords in the House, but the relevance of the result in Arizona to much of anything else appears limited,” writes Tom Jensen of PPP.

But a Democratic victory will still matter. After all, it’s a Republican-leaning swing district. A win would provide a respite from the negative narrative that has dogged President Obama since the June 1 jobs report showed an uptick in unemployment, and has continued through the Republican victory in the Wisconsin recall election last week and the president’s verbal blunder on the economy last Friday.

Even four days later, both presidential campaigns are still duking it out over Obama’s comment that “the private sector is doing fine” (later amended) and Mitt Romney’s assertion that the federal government shouldn’t be funding more firefighters, police, and teachers.

The Democrats have also been using the race in Arizona’s Eighth Congressional District as a laboratory for its November campaign – and given the PPP poll, the strategy seems to be working. Mr. Kelly’s past statements suggesting privatization of Medicare and Social Security have been a campaign staple in a district that skews toward older voters.  Expect that line of attack – “Republicans want to take away your Medicare and Social Security” – in other states and districts with big senior populations.

Republicans will be able to explain away a Barber victory. Emotions still run high over Giffords’s shooting, allegedly at the hands of a mentally ill young man. She and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, appeared on stage with Barber at a get-out-the-vote rally Saturday. Barber’s opponent, Kelly, is not well-liked: Only 37 percent of voters rated Kelly positively in the PPP poll, with 59 percent rating him negatively, according to PPP. Barber has a 54 percent positive rating, 38 percent negative.

Tuesday’s likely electorate is also atypical for the district. PPP found that likely voters went for Obama in 2008 over his opponent, Arizona native son John McCain, 50 percent to 44 percent. In 2008, Senator McCain won the district 52-46.

“It suggests Democrats are unusually motivated to come out and vote to keep Giffords' seat in their hands,” writes Mr. Jensen of PPP.

Translation: A Barber victory on Tuesday likely does not make Arizona any more competitive for Obama in November.

But it could affect the race for control of the House in November, when Barber and Kelly will face off again. Whoever wins on Tuesday will have a leg up in that contest. The Democrats still harbor dreams of retaking the House, and holding onto the Giffords seat is an important step along the way.

So if Kelly pulls off an upset and wins, it will be a major blow to the Democrats. For that reason, a Democratic victory matters.

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