Arizona political operatives had not even finished breakfast Wednesday before the chatter began.
Hours after Jesse Kelly lost the 8th district special election — his second failed attempt to win the Tucson-area seat back for Republicans — GOP insiders began speculating about whether the military veteran deserved to be renominated this summer to run in southern Arizona’s newly drawn, Democratic-leaning 2nd district.
Some Republicans want to put the party’s backing behind retired Air Force Col. Martha McSally, who they believe would perform better against Rep.-elect Ron Barber (D) in the fall.
“McSally can make [the] argument she’s a better fit, but I don’t think she beats Kelly in the primary if he stays,” an unaligned Arizona Republican consultant said. “And I’m not sure either beat Barber in the new district.”
Filing for the Aug. 28 primary is closed. But McSally, who lost to Kelly in the special election primary, spent the ensuing period quietly gathering signatures for her filing paperwork.
Kelly has previously stated he was running for both the remainder of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ (D) term and for a new term in the next Congress. But after Kelly’s second loss in less than two years, he suggested he might decline to run a third time.
“We are spending some time catching up with family and prayerfully reflecting on the future,” Kelly said in a statement. “We expect to have an announcement about our future plans in the next day or two.”
Even as McSally was outspoken in her support of Kelly during the special election campaign, she was positioning herself to run in the GOP primary for the new 2nd district. She described her situation as “complex” and was hesitant to criticize Kelly in the aftermath of Tuesday’s loss to Barber, a former Giffords aide. But she conceded that there was “disappointment” over the loss among Arizona Republicans.
“We’re all on the same team here, and I’m the relief pitcher. I’ve got to be warming up in the bullpen, ready to go, so that’s our plan,” McSally said in an interview with Roll Call.
Regardless of whom the party nominates, it remains unclear whether the National Republican Congressional Committee will make yet another play for a seat the GOP lost in 2006 and failed to win back even in the GOP wave year of 2010.
The campaign committee and pro-GOP third-party groups invested significant financial resources and personnel in the special election campaign, and the fall campaign is for a seat that, on paper, is no longer favorable Republican territory.
National Republicans were unwilling to say Wednesday whether Barber would be on their radar in the fall.
But a statement from NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) indicated that Republicans aren’t ready to write off southern Arizona.
Sessions criticized Barber for doing “his best to conceal his support” for President Barack Obama.
“Barber will not have that advantage in November when he will be on the ballot with President Obama, nor will any of his House Democrat colleagues,” Sessions said.
Democrats, however, expressed confidence. Party operatives have hinted that the toughest race for Barber was the special election. They expect him to be a strong candidate this fall as their nominee in the 2nd district.
But McSally suggested she would be a stronger opponent than Kelly and countered that her race “will be different from what we just saw.”
She stressed her personal authenticity and took a veiled jab at Kelly in saying she would not communicate to voters in “sound bites.”
“I think it is winnable,” she added.
The question is whether the GOP can clear the field so that McSally or Kelly can start building a general election campaign — and if Kelly has the fire in the belly to run.
“I just think he needs a few days to let it sink in and see what his future will be,” McSally said.