The special election to replace former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona will be decided next week. The contest between Republican Jesse Kelly and Democrat Ron Barber is viewed as a tossup and as a messaging test for both parties.
TUCSON, Ariz. — A year and a half after a gunman’s rampage at the Oracle Road Safeway, a small plaque is the only sign of the horrific shootings that killed six and injured 13, including former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D).
As shoppers go about their business, there are also no visible signs of the tossup special election to replace Giffords. But elsewhere in the 8th district, they are everywhere.
In a district that rose to national prominence in January 2011, next Tuesday’s race to succeed Giffords has many layers of importance.
The national parties and their allies have spent heavily to attack Republican Jesse Kelly and Democrat Ron Barber in a test run of messaging for the fall campaign.
For the GOP, the race is about putting an incumbent in the seat before it becomes slightly more Democratic in the fall, and a victory would be a nice boost for morale. For Democrats, it is a must-win for the party’s effort to retake the House and to hold onto the Giffords legacy.
But for Safeway shopper Modesto Gutierrez, it’s about the economy.
He described himself as an independent but said he had already cast an early vote for Kelly based on “abortion, the economy, the economy, the economy, spending, spending, spending.”
Gutierrez said he is a fan of Giffords and probably would have voted for her re-election. But the former Congresswoman’s endorsement of Barber, her former aide who was also shot, wasn’t enough to change his thinking.
“It does matter,” he said. “But I don’t think it will make a difference in this race because of the way the economy is.”
When Barber campaigns, he doesn’t have to seek out voters — they come to him.
Some recognize him from television commercials. Others know him from his years working in government. But mostly, he is known as the staffer who was shot in the face and the leg in the Safeway parking lot.
Some come to shake his hand, others approach him with tears in their eyes. He is an outlet for their emotions.
He is not a natural backslapper, but in his own way, he has an earnest appeal.
“It was about continuing in a different way something I have done all of my adult life, which is public service,” Barber said when asked if he felt obligated to run.
Pima County Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Rogers described a recent Barber televised debate performance as comforting for voters because they got “to see how qualified he was.”
The only visible trace of the gunshot wounds Barber sustained is a dimple on his cheek.
“I lost my cane!” he bragged about his recovery at a Memorial Day ceremony in Sierra Vista. Since the campaign began, he swears his health is better, calling the experience “the best medicine.”
Change in Tone
Kelly, who came close to defeating Giffords in 2010, has mellowed since that campaign.
Two years ago, he presented himself as an ex-Marine, and his campaign featured an image of him carrying a high-powered assault weapon while on duty in the Middle East and called him a “warrior.” He often employed hot rhetoric, such as accusing Giffords of “betraying” her constituents over border issues.
In this contest, his tone could not be more different.
“I think it’s been great,” he said of the race. “It’s been a really issues-based campaign, and we’ve presented our message.”
He rarely mentions Giffords or Barber by name, and in his advertising and interactions with supporters, he cultivates a polite, Boy Scout image.
In the aftermath of the 2011 shootings, Giffords’ 2010 campaign — and Kelly’s rhetoric specifically — were pinpointed for blame. It rarely comes up on the trail now, though.
But despite the lack of personal attacks, this is still a negative race.
Barber and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have hammered Kelly hard on entitlements. On the other side, the Kelly campaign and the National Republican Congressional Committee have accused Barber of supporting cap-and-trade and “Obamacare.”
At the mention of the charges, the congenial Barber turns steely. He calls the portrayals “misinformation, exaggerations, fabrications.”
“I wish I had that kind of influence,” he said of his days as a Hill staffer.
Kelly’s aides similarly accuse Democrats of dishonest tactics, specifically on the charges that Kelly intends to privatize Social Security.
“Our take on it is that we want the next generation to have choices,” he said when asked if he supports Social Security privatization. “We want to protect the benefits that seniors have earned. The government doesn’t have the option to take away those benefits, to protect the seniors that are currently on it, and give choices to the next generation.”
But fair or not, it is very apparent on the ground that the Democratic attacks and portrayal of Kelly have registered with elderly voters.
The 8th district, as it is drawn now, is pure swing territory, and next week’s race will be decided by independent voters.
There is little evidence that there are many Democrats willing to vote for Kelly. But there are some Republicans who will cross over, based on residual loyalty to Giffords.
One such voter is Bo Downey, a National Rifle Association member from Willcox who was in Tombstone for the annual “Wyatt Earp Days” celebration.
He tends to vote Republican, except in the case of Giffords, and now, Barber.
“We’re definitely Giffords fans,” he said. He added that voting for Barber was “an automatic” because of the Giffords endorsement.
Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly have posted on Facebook about their support for Barber, her image has appeared in a direct mail piece and they have sent out fundraising solicitations. And Barber is eager to mention that Giffords made a surprise appearance at his campaign’s kickoff.
But to the surprise of many in Tucson, she has not appeared in television ads in support of Barber.
“She’s done everything that we’ve asked her to do,” he said.
“I don’t want to exploit the Congresswoman. I don’t want to take advantage of our relationship. I welcome her support, but I have not tried to make it over-the-top by asking her to do things that I think are not appropriate.”
Handicapping this race has proved to be especially difficult. A special election in June is uncharted territory for campaign operatives. The retired snowbirds have mostly left for the summer, and the absentee ballot process is cumbersome. Turnout is also expected to be low, given that the Congressional race is the only thing on the ballot.
Still, Kelly is bullish.
The district has trended Republican over the past 10 years. Kelly and his strategists learned lessons in 2010 and are applying them now.
“It’s just a matter of informing the voters what our plan is for this economy, and so far, the response has been so great,” he said. “If we continue to do that, we will win.”
But a few unaligned political insiders willing to bet on this race privately give the edge to Barber going into the closing week.
“All I know is that the worst thing I think you can do is assume you’re going to win,” Barber said about his outlook. “I think you have to run hard and fast to the very end.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.