Ron Barber will serve out Gabrielle Giffords’ term

by Rebekah L. Sanders – Jun. 12, 2012 10:59 PM
The Republic |

More than a year after the nation’s attention was focused on critically injured then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and those killed and wounded alongside her, the spotlight returned Tuesday to southern Arizona as her former aide Ron Barber won the special election to serve out her remaining term.

With nearly 66 percent of the precincts reporting, Barber had nearly 53 percent of the vote, up 8 points over Republican opponent Jesse Kelly, with most early ballots counted, according to unofficial election results.

Kelly conceded the race a little before 9:45 p.m.

Results of special election

Giffords had hoped for such a result when she handpicked Barber, her longtime Democratic district director and friend, after she resigned in January to focus on recovering from a brain injury suffered in the shooting. Democrats were keen on keeping the toss-up seat in their hands before the fall elections.

Barber represents Congressional District 8 for six months and is running for a full term in the newly drawn District 2 during the regular fall elections.

Kelly, a 30-year-old construction-project manager and former Marine who narrowly lost to Giffords in 2010, also plans to compete for the full term.

But he could encounter Republican resistance to a third try after his loss to to Barber. Two other GOP candidates, including a potential rising star, retired Air Force pilot Martha McSally, have filed to compete for the full term.

McSally finished second to Kelly in the April primary, despite little initial name recognition and modest fundraising. Her brand of spunky conservative feminism and story of becoming the Air Force’s first female combat pilot stirred many voters. A little-known Republican county worker, Mark Koskiniemi, is also on the ballot for the fall.

Barber, 66, is slated to face Tucson doctor and state Rep. Matt Heinz in the Democratic primary.

Political analysts warn against relying on special elections to predict widespread voter trends. But the race in some ways can be seen as a testing ground for Democratic and Republican messages that were widely used two years ago and are expected to be repeated in campaigns until Nov. 6.

Kelly promoted a strict diet of lower taxes, growing jobs and reducing gas prices by increasing American energy production. Republican campaign advertising worked to tie Barber to the unpopular policies of President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, such as the health-care plan.

Democrats, on the other hand, hammered Kelly on statements about privatizing Social Security, phasing out Medicare and opposing any corporate income tax. Barber called Kelly too “extreme” for the district and promised to embrace bipartisanship, touting moderate Republican supporters and distancing himself from Obama.

For both sides, the playbooks appear similar to those used during the “tea party” Republican wave of 2010 that Giffords barely weathered.

But David Wasserman, U.S. House of Representatives editor for the nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-based Cook Political Report, warned against treating the race in the toss-up district too much as a barometer for the rest of the country.

“Don’t look to this race for many clues of what will happen nationally in the fall,” Wasserman said. He noted that Arizona’s Congressional District 8 is different from most others.

The perennial swing district is unique in having a nearly even registration split among Republicans, Democrats and independents, with a slightly greater GOP registration lean. The district went for Republican Sen. John McCain for president in 2008 and Republican Gov. Jan Brewer in 2010 but voted into office Giffords, a Blue Dog Democrat who was conservative on budget issues, three times.

The district that includes parts of Tucson, Sierra Vista and U.S.-Mexican border towns like Douglas has long dealt with issues like border security and immigration.

Barber rarely mentioned the shooting on the campaign trail, despite himself being shot in the leg and cheek.

Giffords kept a low profile in the race until the weekend before the election, when she attended a voter rally for Barber with her husband, Mark Kelly, and greeted campaign volunteers. She cast her vote for Barber on Tuesday at a polling station. She wore an arm brace and spoke little on the visits but looked full of energy, with a beaming smile.

Bruce Merrill, a veteran Arizona political scientist, said the initial results point to Giffords’ great influence in the election, especially as Barber seemed not to be a great campaigner.

“It would just seem to me the only logical conclusion is it shows how much respect and influence Gabby Giffords has in that community,” he said.

Barber served for close to six years as Giffords’ district director, fielding the needs of constituents. Before that, he was a regional director for state disability programs, helped his wife run a Tucson children’s clothing and toy shop and worked for Head Start.

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