Winner of Gabrielle Giffords’ seat in Congress not yet determined

Posted June 13, 2012, at 12:14 a.m.

Voters in Arizona were set to select a replacement for former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, D, in a competitive special election on Tuesday, but late poll closings left the winner undetermined late Tuesday night.

Former Giffords aide Ron Barber, D, and Iraq war veteran Jesse Kelly, R, were vying for the chance to serve out the final few months of Giffords’s term. The race was the last congressional special election before the general election, leaving both sides to mine the results for clues about what might work in November and who might have momentum on their side.

Giffords survived an assassination attempt in January 2011 and resigned her seat in Congress earlier this year to focus on her recovery. She supported Barber and has been campaigning on his behalf, but she was rarely an issue in the battle for the conservative-leaning southeast Arizona district.

Instead, the race centered on Barber’s connections to the national Democratic Party and Kelly’s past statements about overhauling the nation’s entitlement programs, including Social Security and Medicare.

The Democratic strategy appeared to be paying dividends, and Republicans were pessimistic heading into Tuesday’s vote that they would emerge victorious.

A poll released Monday from Democratic-leaning automated pollster Public Policy Polling showed Barber with a double-digit lead over Kelly.

A Barber win would be the result in large part of Democratic efforts to define Kelly early on as being against Medicare and Social Security in the 11th-oldest district in the country. In their ads, Democrats ran footage and quotes of Kelly talking about getting rid of the entitlement programs.

Kelly attempted to distance himself from those past positions, airing an ad featuring his grandfather.

Given the large number of senior citizens in the district and Kelly’s past comments, though, the special election was almost a perfect test case for the Democrats’ strategy, which they used in previous special elections and plan to use in the fall. But the political circumstances are not likely to align so perfectly in most other districts.

Democrats point out that basically every GOP incumbent has voted for a Republican budget that would overhaul Medicare and that they can use the issue against any number of Republicans, particularly incumbents, nationwide.

On the GOP side, the messaging was all about linking Barber to his national party, including President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., along with Obama’s health-care law. And Barber, much like his boss before him, has sought to put some distance between his campaign and the president. Giffords, for example, notably declined to vote for Pelosi for speaker in 2011, after Democrats lost control of the House in the 2010 midterm election.

If Republicans win, they will make the argument that it was because the Democratic brand and struggling economy weighed Barber down.

Giffords played a bit part in the campaign, with Democrats featuring her in a piece of mail and a Democratic super PAC running an ad that showed Kelly criticizing her during their 2010 campaign. She also appeared with Barber at a rally over the weekend. But in a district where more than half of voters were likely to vote by mail, many if not most ballots had already been cast.

The race didn’t attract as much attention and spending from outside groups as other recent special elections, despite indications that it would be close. Taking place just one week after a high-profile gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin meant much of the nation’s attention was focused elsewhere until seven days ago.

Conservative groups and the national Republican Party spent about $1.4 million on Kelly’s behalf, while the Democratic Party and allied groups spent about $900,000 for Barber.

Regardless of Tuesdays’s winner, the two could be headed for a rematch in November, where both candidates will run again for a full term in a newly drawn district.

If Kelly loses, though, he faces another rematch with retired Air Force colonel Martha McSally, who finished in second place in the special primary election. The primary for the general election will be held Aug. 28.

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