The 2012 cycle has seen a constant stream of special elections, but the contest to replace Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) will be unlike most others. That’s because this district is often referred to as “Gabby’s seat.”
While both parties view it as highly competitive, some Democrats say they believe a Giffords endorsement could not only tilt the primary in one Democrat’s direction but also play an outsized role in the general election.
“This Congressional seat is going to be Gabby Giffords’ forever, regardless of who sits in that seat,” Democratic consultant Mario Diaz said. “So the emotional anchor attached to this district is going to go to the Democrat who wins.”
“I can’t think of a more powerful endorsement than her,” one Democratic strategist said. “You would have to have an unbelievable campaign fundraising operation to have a prayer of running against her endorsement.”
One Republican strategist noted that an endorsee who is personally close to Giffords, like a family member or a staffer, would mean more to voters than a generic Democratic politician. “People are still capable of making rational electoral decisions even when there’s a lot to get emotional about,” the strategist said.
The dust is still settling less than two days after Giffords shocked just about everyone in Arizona politics. No candidates had officially stepped forward as of Monday afternoon, and neither party was expressing outward confidence in winning the seat.
Privately, Democrats can’t be happy about the likelihood of having to spend money to keep Giffords’ seat. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, aiming to pick up 25 seats in November, has spent nearly $1.1 million on a Jan. 31 special election in a safe Democratic district in Oregon.
Republicans and Democrats say Giffords would have cruised to re-election had she chosen to run, but her exit leaves open a competitive district. Because of the makeup of the current district, there is a good chance both parties will spend money on the race.
Before Giffords made her announcement, the national Republican Party line was that there was no appetite to challenge her, despite the district’s competitiveness.
With Giffords out, Republicans are looking to play hard for the seat.
“We view this as a competitive race that provides an opportunity for a strong Republican candidate to win,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said. “This district has always been competitive, and it remains competitive.”
The race is expected to take shape this week. Her resignation will be read on the House floor Wednesday, though there was some confusion within Giffords’ office about when it will take effect.
“You’ll see a couple of really serious candidates emerge in the next 72 hours, I would say,” Pima County Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Rogers said.
Rogers said he wouldn’t be surprised if Giffords endorses a candidate, but he doesn’t know which candidate that would be at this point. He said he’s spoken with a woman “who has a large national network of potential donors and also has quite a long history of being involved in politics” in Washington, D.C., but he was not free to reveal her name.
Democratic names previously floated to Roll Call include state Sen. Linda Lopez of Tucson, who is close to Giffords; state Senate Minority Whip Paula Aboud; state Rep. Steve Farley; Pima County Supervisor Ramon Valadez; and businesswoman Nan Stockholm Walden.
”This is not a typical race from many norms of judging races,” Farley said. Farley is from Tucson, knows Giffords and said he would run if she or her husband, Mark Kelly, asked him to do so.
Republicans expected to run include state Sen. Frank Antenori and Dave Sitton, both of whom had previously opened exploratory committees. Former state Sen. Jonathan Paton, who lost in the 2010 primary, had been looking at the new 1st district, but he lives in this one.
Once Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) declares the seat vacant, Gov. Jan Brewer (R) must set the special primary 80 to 90 days following the vacancy, and the general election must occur 50 to 60 days after the primary.
Making things more confusing, candidates hoping to run for a full term must file in May for the Aug. 28 primary. Thanks to redistricting, the candidates who make it beyond the April special primary and are also running for a full term will be running for at least a month in two districts with different lines.
“What’s going to make it unusual is you have a special election being run in the old district right on the heels of which is going to be a regular election in the new district, and it’s going to be very hard for the candidates to sort that out,” said former Rep. Jim Kolbe (R), who held the seat before Giffords. Rogers, the Pima County Democratic Party chairman, called it a “logistical nightmare.”
Under the current lines, the partisan makeup of the district is slightly more favorable for Republicans than under the new lines. The partisan voting index of the current district favors Republicans by 4 points, and that advantage will be cut in half in November.
One Arizona Democrat told Roll Call that there is some discussion that candidates might opt to skip the special election and run for the more Democratic-friendly redrawn seat.
“It’s always been highly independent,” said Margaret Kenski, a Tucson-based GOP pollster who worked for two Congressmen who once represented the area, Kolbe and Democratic Rep. Mo Udall.
“It’s a moderate swing district, fiscally somewhat conservative, socially a bit moderate,” she said. “Sincerely, this district is about 30-to-35 percent independent in inclination. The crossover voting for both [Kolbe and Udall] was substantial.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.