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Arizona Special Election Is Test of Party Messaging

Jonathan Gibby/Getty Images
Ron Barber, an aide to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was wounded in the shooting that seriously injured the Congresswoman. Now he is seeking her seat in a special election.

The race to replace former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) in Arizona’s 8th district is a local drama with national implications.

Even as last year’s shooting that led to Giffords’ resignation looms over the June 12 special election, Democrats and Republicans in Washington, D.C., are using the race for this Tucson-based seat to test-market national messaging for the fall campaign. Ron Barber (D), a former Giffords aide, is running against the Congresswoman’s 2010 opponent, Jesse Kelly (R), and the winning party is poised to claim momentum heading into November.

“Both sides want to test their message and find out what works right before the fall election. It has national implications for the national race and both for the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] and the [National Republican Congressional Committee] and their Congressional races,” said John Ellinwood, spokesman for the Kelly campaign.

The January 2011 shooting that targeted Giffords during a constituent event outside a local Safeway store and resulted in the death of six people, while wounding Giffords, Barber and 11 others, has not been forgotten in the community.

Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, have been actively involved in the campaign. The couple endorsed Barber early, and on Wednesday the DCCC sent out a fundraising solicitation from Mark Kelly. The couple has also posted on Facebook encouraging voters to support Barber.

Giffords, who is still recovering from her wounds, has appeared sporadically on the trail for Barber. The issue is whether Giffords will appear in a television ad vouching for her former staffer and how that might affect the race, political observers say. Barber campaign consultant Rodd McLeod has been cagey and would say only that voters would “hear more” from Giffords in the next few weeks.

“The question is about what effect Giffords has on this race and is goodwill enough to carry Ron Barber through or not?” said a D.C.-based Democratic strategist who is monitoring the contest.

No polling of the Barber-Kelly matchup was publicly available at press time. But both campaigns agreed that the contest could go either way at this point.

Special elections are difficult to predict because voter turnout is often hard to gauge. A tossup special election held five months before the general election is often used by the national parties as a dry run for the fall.

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