Ron Barber's win in Arizona House race a lift for dispirited Democrats

Voters in former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' House district elected Ron Barber, the retired congresswoman's aide, to serve out her term. Barber defeated a tea-party-backed candidate in a district where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats.

By , Staff writer

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    In an election to fill former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona, congressional seat, Democratic candidate Ron Barber, right, celebrates a victory with Giffords and supporters at a post election event, Tuesday, June 12, in Tucson, Ariz.
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Ron Barber, an aide to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona, has won the special election to fill out the remainder of the retired congresswoman's term in Congress.

The victory by Mr. Barber, a survivor of the mass shooting that severely wounded Ms. Giffords last year, gives the Democrats a break from the bad news that has dogged the party and President Obama this month. Barber beat the tea-party-backed Republican, Jesse Kelly, 52 percent to 46 percent in a district with a 26,000-vote registration edge for Republicans.

Both parties used the race as a testing ground for messages they hope will be effective in November. The Democrats pounded Mr. Kelly, a former Marine who lost to Giffords in 2010, for past statements proposing privatization of Medicare and Social Security. The Republicans sought to lash Barber to Mr. Obama’s health-care and economic policies.

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But the race has limited value as a national bellwether. Barber’s tie to Giffords, and the January 2011 massacre in Tucson that nearly took both of their lives, gave the special election an emotional dimension that is unique. The popular Giffords had asked Barber to run for her seat, and she campaigned with him the weekend before the vote.  

Still, the Barber victory gives Democrats something to grab onto in their quest to keep the White House – and their uphill battle to retake control of the House.

“This election was a referendum on Republicans’ policy of cutting Medicare and privatizing Social Security to give tax breaks [to] millionaires, Big Oil, and corporations that ship jobs overseas – and they lost,” the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said in a post-election memo.

The Republicans were equally adamant that they had the winning argument, despite the loss in Arizona’s Eighth Congressional District.

“It is clear that Ron Barber knew that voters in this district would never accept his true positions on President Obama’s agenda which have made a bad economy worse in this state,” said Rep. Pete Sessions (R) of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “That explains why he did his best to conceal his support for so much of that agenda.”

The Republicans chided Barber for distancing himself from Obama during the campaign, though on the eve of the election, the former district representative for Giffords reaffirmed his support for Obama in a CNN interview.

Barber has an excellent chance at winning a full term in November, when he is likely to face Kelly again – especially since the Republicans will have only a 2,000-vote edge in registration in the newly drawn district. But the Democrats will have a much harder time winning back control of the House, especially if unemployment remains high and economic growth is weak.

Still, the Democrats’ House campaign committee sees hope in the fact that there are 84 Republican incumbents in seats more Democratic than Arizona’s current Eighth District.

Congressman Sessions of the GOP campaign committee said the “tragic turn of events” that led to the special election made it a unique contest, while asserting that Kelly’s message would be effective in November, when Obama is on the ballot.

“No one wanted this election to happen, or to see Gabrielle Giffords step down from Congress,” Sessions said, “but Jesse ran a campaign focused on pro-growth policies that will lead to less government and a strong and vibrant economy.”

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