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‘Gabby’s Seat’ Up for Grabs Today

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Ron Barber (left), the Democratic candidate in Arizona’s 8th district, is vying to fill the seat occupied by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in today’s special election.

“I think it’ll be good momentum for Democrats nationally [if Barber wins], but if we can’t keep Gabby’s seat, I think the Republicans are going to have a field day with this,” said Mario E. Diaz, an Arizona Democratic consultant who is not working on the campaign. “It was just presumed we were going to win.”

The refrain among Arizona operatives is that the GOP has always had the advantage in this district but that Giffords was an exceptionally charismatic and adept politician who pulled out an especially difficult win in 2010. Her legacy both motivates and looms over the party as it tries to hold the seat, but not to the extent as was expected.

“This election turned out not to be a referendum on Gabby Giffords but on the two candidates running here,” Kolbe said. “There was a lot of feeling that that’s what it would be about, and it has not turned out that way.”

But those on the ground said much more is at play than a single nationalized issue like in the special election last year that brought Rep. Kathy Hochul (D-N.Y.) to Congress.

As in that race, Medicare and Social Security are prominent in television ads and campaign rhetoric, but other factors are equally at play. Giffords’ endorsement counts and will surely earn Barber some crossover votes from Republicans.

If Barber loses, some Democrats are sure to privately point fingers at the disorganized start to the race in the wake of Giffords’ surprise resignation announcement in January.

The winner of the special will run for re-election in the fall for a full two-year term. That election will be in a redrawn district that is slightly more favorable to Democrats. But party strategists would much rather be defending the seat than trying to unseat a Republican incumbent in November, regardless of the district’s political lean.

If today’s outcome is a surprise blowout, the parties have few options to look for a new candidate in the fall because the filing deadline for the August primaries has passed.

Barber and Kelly have stated an intent to run in the fall, but there are opponents in each race. If Kelly loses today, it is hard to imagine national Republicans investing so heavily in him as their candidate again in the fall. If Kelly wins, Democrats will make winning back the seat a top priority this fall.

Regardless, one party will be able to crow about a win Wednesday and strategists will try to spin national implications. But Arizona operatives said it will be hard to sell the outcome as a foreshadowing of what’s to come this fall.

“There are too many dynamics in this race for anyone to point to one thing and say, ‘That was it,’” the Arizona Democratic strategist not on the campaign said.

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