Ask any unaligned Arizona Republican who will win the special election primary to replace Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) and there is only one name mentioned: veteran Jesse Kelly.
“I don’t see how Jesse doesn’t win the primary after watching it unfold,” a national GOP strategist said, echoing interviews with Republicans knowledgeable about the race.
Kelly is viewed as having the best organization, the highest name identification in the district and the inside track to the GOP nomination.
And some, but not all, Republicans are very unhappy about that.
The GOP nominee in the special election will face Ron Barber, a former aide to Giffords. The winner of the special will have to seek re-election in the fall in a redrawn version of the tossup district that is slightly more Democratic.
Some operatives believe Kelly would not be a viable nominee in the fall election if he loses the June 12 special. They are talking up other Republican hopefuls, namely veteran Martha McSally or college TV broadcaster Dave Sitton, who would presumably run again for the nomination in the regularly scheduled Aug. 28 primary.
Kelly has a strong fiscal conservative profile and the support of the base. The worry is that he is too conservative for the moderate district.
“Jesse’s going to continue to talk to the voters about lowering taxes, a stronger economy, more jobs and using American energy to lower gas prices,” Kelly spokesman John Ellenwood said. “And the response to that has been very positive, and so we’re going to continue to talk about those issues.”
Several Republicans disagreed with the concerns about Kelly, who lost to Giffords by less than 2 points in 2010.
“I think he’s the strongest. Look at how close he came to beating Gabby Giffords,” GOP strategist Chris DeRose said. “Gabby Giffords is a lot more formidable than Ron Barber, even in light of everything.”
DeRose pointed to strategic lessons learned from the 2010 campaign and Kelly’s high name identification. He did note that McSally is a rising star in Arizona politics.
The National Republican Congressional Committee is unaligned in the race.
Local and national Democrats generally agree that Kelly is the candidate they most want to face in both elections. A national party strategist said that Democrats will pound him on budget issues, specifically his advocacy of phasing out Social Security and Medicare.
That sets up an oddly conventional race a year and a half removed from the January 2011 Safeway shootings.
Democrats intend to make Social Security and Medicare cuts a national issue. Likewise, Kelly and his team are focused on discussing issues and tying Barber to President Barack Obama.
Locally, though, it’s personal. Democratic wounds remain raw from the rough 2010 campaign. But some of the bruises come from the shootings. Kelly was widely criticized in the Tucson massacre aftermath for using diction and imagery during the 2010 campaign that alluded to shooting and targets. Those metaphors have never been tied to inspiring the massacre.
The other Republican hopefuls, such as McSally and Sitton, don’t carry any baggage from the 2010 race or ties to Giffords.
McSally has fascinated many, including Democrats. She broke glass ceilings during her time in the Air Force and proved to be a deft bureaucratic fighter when she challenged rules that forced her to wear an abaya during her service in Saudi Arabia.
In an interview with Roll Call, she showed passion for foreign affairs and gender issues. However, she has stumbled on the trail regarding domestic issues as well as knowledge of the district.
The chatter about Sitton before last week’s filing of fundraising reports was that he lacked enthusiasm. His report told a far different story. He raised more than Kelly and McSally, and most of it was from local donors. He is viewed as the state establishment favorite and has long held ties to the Tucson community.
State Sen. Frank Antenori is also seeking the GOP nod in the special primary, but he did not file a fundraising report last week.
Kelly has spent his funds strategically. Although he had a high burn rate, because of early voting he reached many voters just as they were beginning to make their decisions.
Adding to the uncertainty of the race is that the filing deadline for the August primary is before the June special election. GOP candidates who lose the special nomination will have to decide before the special general whether they want to run again and possibly appear on the ballot with an incumbent.
Democrats have not completely avoided this sort of anxiety. State House Rep. Matt Heinz has deferred to Barber for the special, but he still intends to run in the Aug. 28 primary.
Regardless of all the chess playing, the demographics are clear. Both races are pure tossups.