Democrat Ron Barber defeated Republican Jesse Kelly yesterday in Arizona’s special election for the House seat formerly held by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Barber received 52 percent of the vote—to Kelly’s 45 percent—and will serve out the remainder of Giffords’s term, before coming up for reelection in November.
Particular national implications are often difficult to interpret from congressional special elections, and this one seems specifically unique since it’s a result of an alleged assassination attempt on Giffords, which left her critically injured and killed six.
The Eighth Congressional District is right of center, but Giffords, a Democrat, was popular in Tucson. In 2008, when McCain beat Obama by six points there, 52-46, Giffords handily beat Republican Mike Bee, 55-43. Barber, a former Giffords staffer, was well placed to win his former boss’s seat.
In the last week, Barber campaigned with Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly at a concert, with Kelly telling voters that a win for Barber would bring “closure on Gabby's career in Congress.” And Giffords appeared with Barber at the ballot Tuesday to cast her vote.
Another prominent issue in this race was Barack Obama. Though he never visited Tucson in support of Barber, and though he never campaigned for the Democratic House candidate, the president and his policies were consistently at the fore.
Republicans, for their part, took every opportunity to link Barber to Obama, calling the Democratic candidate a “rubber stamp” for the president and for House minority leader Nancy Pelosi.
Barber himself drew national attention when he refused to say whether he would vote for the president in November. (He later clarified his position.) And throughout the race, Barber distanced himself from Democratic leadership, telling ABC, “I'm really trying to make sure that this race in Southern Arizona is about Southern Arizona…My opponent continually tries to nationalize this race and tries to associate me with bills that I've never had anything to do with.”
Even when Barber supported the president’s policies, he refused comment or equivocated when asked how he would have voted on various unpopular Democratic legislative initiatives.
So, if there is one thing to note about this special election, it would be that Democratic candidates across the country will have to figure out how to deal with President Obama, who they hope will be reelected in November, while trying to distance themselves from some of his unpopular initiatives.