The special election to fill the last six months of Gabrielle Giffords’s term in the Eighth Congressional District of Arizona is rapidly approaching. Although the race looks close, no one can say that the candidates are neck and neck. At 6’8”, Republican Jesse Kelly stands head and shoulders above most people—not just his opponent, former Giffords staffer Ron Barber.
In the 2010 midterm elections, Kelly, a local businessman and Marine veteran and father of two, came within 5,000 votes of unseating Giffords, a remarkable feat, since the incumbent had outspent the then-unknown Kelly by more than $2 million.
After winning reelection, Giffords was on her way up. Many predicted that she would soon outgrow the House and make a play for Senator Jon Kyl’s seat in 2012. But then tragedy struck.
On January 8, 2011, Giffords and 18 others (including Barber), were attacked by a gunman at a Tucson-area “Congress on Your Corner” event. Giffords survived a bullet through the skull and made a remarkable recovery; still, she resigned from Congress on January 25, 2012.
Barber, Giffords’s district director, promptly announced that he would run for her seat in the special election on June 12. Barber told the New York Times that although he had promised his wife he would never run for office, he had changed his mind because “Gabby asked me to . . . and I really hadn’t ever said no to Gabby.”
The painful circumstances of this election have forced both candidates to tread carefully. Barber must work hard not to seem to be capitalizing on Giffords’s disaster—or letting her inspiring story overshadow his own, more muted personality. Apart from making campaign contributions and appearing in a Democratic party mailer asking voters to join her in electing Barber, Giffords herself has stayed out of the race.
As Rodd McLeod, a campaign consultant for Barber, told reporters, “We’ve never said, ‘Vote for Ron Barber because he worked for Gabby Giffords.’ ” But the shadow of the shooting, which took six lives, still looms so large over Tucson that Barber may not have to invoke Giffords’s name to benefit from her image. She is, after all, the reason he is running.
Barber was unopposed in the Democratic primary, after reportedly telling potential rivals that he would not seek a full term in November, a decision he has since reversed. And while Barber does not invoke his former boss, he has made the occasional slanted reference to the shooting. When asked about the Second Amendment, Barber replied that he supported it, but added, “I had an experience with a gun,” trusting his audience to catch his meaning.
Barber’s opponent, similarly, must run a tough campaign without seeming to attack Giffords, a nationally beloved figure—and he is doing just that. Kelly insists that the Tucson shooting is not driving electoral politics.
“This election has just been about the issues,” Kelly says. “It’s about who can create jobs, who can lower gas prices. The people’s support has been overwhelming. They tell me, ‘This is a chance to vote against the agenda of Barack Obama.’ The people see it as a referendum on the president—and the Democratic party knows that that’s what this is, too.”
In the past few months the Obama campaign has made at least a nominal effort to put Arizona, along with its 11 electoral votes, into play in November. Although the state has gone blue only once since the Truman administration, some Democratic strategists cite rising numbers of Latino voters and large student populations as evidence that the demographics are changing in their favor. Some Democrats may also believe that Barber, and even the president, can eke out a win in Arizona on the basis of Giffords’s enormous popularity.
The first lady, Michelle Obama, made a campaign stop in Tucson in late April, telling the crowd, “I know we’re going to do it here because of people like you,” and later, “I also want to recognize Ron Barber. He is going to do a fantastic job in Washington. We will be happy to have him out there.”
Whether Barber is happy with so much attention from inside the Beltway is less clear. During a May 23 debate with Kelly, Barber caused a stir when he refused to state whether or not he would vote for Obama in November, insisting, “My vote is my vote. . . . And I will not keep talking about other elections.”
Kelly pounced. “I was stunned that he would not admit who he was supporting,” said Kelly, “but I wasn’t surprised. In this district, he’s got to hide what he believes.”
The next day, Barber released a statement saying that “of course” he would support the president in November. Yet Barber hardly seems reconciled to his party’s establishment. The following Sunday, he told the press that, if elected, he might not support Nancy Pelosi for speaker of the House.
Back in February, Pelosi and other prominent Democrats threw Barber a fundraiser in Washington, selling tickets for as much as $1,000 a plate. With Pelosi’s help, Barber has raised twice as much money as Kelly. He has little to show for it. The most recent poll, reported in Roll Call in mid-April, put Kelly ahead 49-45 percent.
Given this, and the Republicans’ registration edge of over 25,000 voters in the district (up 6,000 since 2010), Barber could be looking at defeat. And, if so, it is doubtful that the Democratic party will spend time and money in November on a failed congressional candidate who publicly embarrassed the president and the party leadership in May.
If Barber does not run again this fall, state representative Matt Heinz is waiting in the wings to take his place. Heinz doesn’t seem to think that Barber will be back—he is already quietly raising money to “take on Jesse Kelly, the Republican front-runner and Tea Party poster-boy.”
For now, Kelly is focused on defeating Barber. He is also thinking past campaign mode, to Day One in Congress, where he plans “to immediately attempt to stop the EPA’s job-killing agenda.” He also insists that this race is not about him.
“This race is about jobs. This race is about the economy. This is a swing district, and it’s the last election before the presidential race. There’s a lot at stake here,” says Kelly.
The excitement is even reaching into his family. “My kids are . . . vaguely aware of what’s going on,” he says, “but it’s hard to say what they think about it. All I know is, now when I walk in the door, instead of ‘Dada,’ my three-year-old goes, ‘Hey, that’s Jesse Kelly!’ ”
Kate Havard is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard