Giffords' Shadow Looms Over Special Election

Giffords' Shadow Looms Over Special Election

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - June 11, 2012

A special congressional election in an Arizona swing district on Tuesday figures to be a barometer of key party themes five months out from Election Day, as well as a test run for Democrats hoping to gain control of the House of Representatives.

But unlike other races from which observers can see national implications, this one was brought on by tragedy -- a tragedy that has shaped the rhetoric of the campaign.

Voters in the state’s 8th Congressional District will elect a successor to Democrat Gabrielle Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt 18 months ago that left six people dead and several wounded outside a Tucson grocery store. Democrat Ron Barber (pictured), Gifford’s former district director and one of those wounded in the attack, is running against Republican Jesse Kelly, a Marine veteran who narrowly lost the seat to Giffords in 2010. The winner will complete the remainder of Giffords’ term. According to a Public Policy Polling survey released Monday, Barber leads Kelly by 12 points.

The central debate in the contest has centered largely on Medicare and other entitlement programs in this Republican-leaning district, where seniors make up a sizable portion of the electorate.

Democrats have tried to paint Kelly as a Tea Party extremist who would threaten those entitlements. They’ve spotlighted comments Kelly made while running in 2010 that Medicare and Social Security should be privatized and also his characterization of Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme.” The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ran an ad narrated by a Tucson construction worker who says, “I don't think it's right for Jesse Kelly and people to decide that I don't get my Medicare that I've been paying for.”

Voters in congressional districts across the country will likely be seeing similar ads this cycle as Democrats focus their attacks on Republican House members’ support for Rep. Paul Ryan’s GOP budget proposal to significantly alter Medicare and other programs. Democrats need a net gain of 25 seats to reclaim the speaker’s gavel, and will depend on swing districts such as this one to succeed.

Kelly, meanwhile, appears to have reshaped his image since his run for the House two years ago. He recently ran an ad featuring his own grandfather in which he pledges to protect Medicare and Social Security for seniors. "I know you’ll protect us,” says his grandfather in the ad. The spot also hits Barber for supporting President Obama’s unpopular health care law, asserting that the law cuts $500 billion from Medicare (a preview of national Republicans’ messaging). Kelly identifies with the Tea Party but denies the extremist label. He has focused his campaign on the economy and southern Arizona families.

Republicans also see this race as a test of the president’s record. Democrats have suggested Arizona could be in play for Obama in the fall, mostly because 2008 GOP nominee John McCain got a native-son boost and because the growing Hispanic population there could help the president. The Obama campaign listed Arizona as “leans Republican” instead of solid red when it introduced a new electoral map last week. Many observers suspect that the re-election campaign is just trying to force Mitt Romney to spend money in the state, but if Democrats want to play here, Obama would have to drive significant turnout in Pima County, which encompasses this 8th District, says a Republican operative based in Tucson. “Every Democrat who won statewide has done so by winning big in Pima County. If a Democrat can’t say the president’s name in public, then how on earth is he going to come here and win the state?” the insider said.

The operative was referring to Barber’s tepid support for Obama. When asked by Kelly in a recent debate for whom he would vote in November, the Democrat danced around the question, insisting his race was separate from Obama’s. Barber clarified his remarks afterward, saying he would vote for the president.

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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