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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.

The NRCC has dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into television spots that criticize Barber for health care reform and Medicare cuts that Republicans charge were included in President Barack Obama’s health care law. In the ads, the NRCC juxtaposes Barber with shots of Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The Democrats, meanwhile, are going after Kelly on Medicare and Social Security, suggesting he would support House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget plan.

The DCCC and House Majority PAC have invested in Barber. On the Republican side, the NRCC and Citizens United have made heavy bets. Each side has spent about a million dollars, according to a source who tracks media buys.

A Democratic consultant compared the race to Rep. Mark Critz’s (D-Pa.) successful 2010 bid to replace his former boss, the late Rep. John Murtha, and cautioned against drawing national conclusions from the outcome because of the emotion involved in a race like this.

“Specials are always high-profile but more so when you are replacing a legendary figure,” the Democratic consultant said. “As it’s currently drawn, this is a very tough seat for Democrats to hold, but Rep. Giffords held it for three cycles and Mr. Critz succeeded Mr. Murtha, so I like our chances.”

In a sense, this is a rematch of the 2010 Giffords-Kelly race, with both campaign teams making a return appearance for the special. Barber’s political team, including McLeod, were with Giffords in 2010.

Both campaigns are emphasizing grass-roots politicking, running phonebanks and knocking on doors. But the sheer amount of money spent on television advertising in the small Tucson market is likely to have a greater impact on the outcome of the election.

“I don’t think there’s such a thing as over saturation in a tight race,” an Arizona Republican strategist said.

Both parties have resorted to the messaging used in the 2010 cycle in the television ads, with Republicans attempting to demonize Pelosi and Democrats accusing the Republican candidate of being “extreme” and tied to the tea party. The question for the fall is whether these tactics will work.

There will be no rest for the winner of the 8th district special. He will have to run for re-election in the fall in a redrawn district, the new Arizona 2nd.

That seat will be slightly more favorable for the Democrats.

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