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Today’s special election in Arizona will decide the next occupant of what Democrats call “Gabby’s seat,” and party operatives on both sides agree there is no clear favorite heading into Election Day.
The battle between Democrat Ron Barber and Republican Jesse Kelly to replace former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) has been tight from the beginning. But Democrats in particular have varied between moments of confidence and doubt over the past several weeks and appear to have more riding on a victory.
“There’s a real chance Democrats are going to lose the seat, and it’s a pretty troubling place for us to be in,” said an Arizona Democrat not working on the Barber campaign.
Giffords, who resigned to focus on recovering from an assassination attempt last year, came to Tucson over the weekend to support Barber and to thank volunteers. Democrats came out of the weekend encouraged by their efforts to excite voters.
But it may have come too late. Early voting participation has been high, and most operatives believe a majority of votes in the special were cast before the Giffords appearance.
The high return on early voting ballots has surprised many and thrown off turnout expectations.
“If you don’t have your act together on the day early ballots go out, you’re really in trouble,” said former Rep. Jim Kolbe (R), who held the seat prior to Giffords.
Strategists from both parties said they have closely watched early ballot returns and have cause for optimism.
A pre-election survey from Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, showed Barber ahead by 12 points. But insiders were dubious, and Democrats said the race is “considerably closer” in their internal polling.
Outside groups such as the Democratic-aligned House Majority PAC and conservative-backed FreedomWorks, as well as the House campaign committees, have poured more than $2 million into the race — much of it spent on television ads.
As of last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had spent $460,000 on independent expenditures, compared with $878,000 on IEs spent by the National Republican Congressional Committee. House Majority PAC had spent $473,000 on IEs, while FreedomWorks had spent $300,000.
Much is at stake for both parties. Democrats continue to say they can retake the House this fall, and holding this seat is a crucial part of their math. A Kelly win, on the heels of Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s victory in last week’s Wisconsin recall elections, would further give the GOP a boost and a key talking point.