PHOENIX – Ron Barber’s decisive victory in a special election for the
congressional seat held by his old boss and fellow mass shooting survivor
Gabrielle Giffords is raising questions over whether the Republican he beat will
continue to campaign for the November election.
Tea party Republican Jesse Kelly lost Tuesday’s election by six percentage
points, a significant margin considering that the district has 25,000 more
registered Republicans than Democrats, voted for Republicans the last two
presidential elections, and that Kelly very nearly unseated Giffords herself in
their 2010 campaign fight.
Barber, who is expected to be sworn into Congress on Tuesday, will have to win
over voters again in the Aug. 28 primary and Nov. 6 general election.
Kelly declined to comment about his own plans Wednesday, instead releasing a
statement that said he was “spending some time catching up with family and
prayerfully reflecting on the future,” and that he would have an announcement
about his future by the end of the week.
“This stinks,” Kelly told his supporters Tuesday night during his concession
speech. Afterward he told reporters who asked him what he was going to do now:
“Only God knows.”
And on Wednesday, he wrote on Twitter: “Thank you all for everything.”
Democrats are pointing to Barber’s victory as proof that voters are rejecting
extremist Republican ideas while Republicans said that Barber won because of
voter emotions over the Jan. 8, 2011, mass shooting in Tucson that nearly killed
him and Giffords.
“We applaud Jesse Kelly for his strong effort to defeat an Obama-aligned
candidate but unfortunately, emotional reaction to the terrible crime committed
against Congressman Giffords and her supporters was overwhelming,” Tom
Morrissey, chairman of the Arizona Republican Party, said in a statement.
“Jesse Kelly focused his race on the future, but it ended up being about the
Party spokesman Shane Wikfors said in the same statement that Republicans were
looking forward to regrouping for the regular election cycle and winning the
Barber spokesman Rodd McLeod said that Morrissey’s comment was “laughable,”
and rejected that Barber won because of the tragedy.
“This is a campaign that was 100 percent about the future of southern
Arizona,” McLeod said. “Voters saw in Ron Barber steady and responsible ideas
for rebuilding the middle class, and from the Republican side they just heard
more extremist rhetoric and spin.”
Republicans had sought to make the contest a referendum on President Obama and
his handling of the economy. Democrats played to the senior vote by reminding
them that Kelly called for privatization of both Social Security and Medicare
during his 2010 run against Giffords.
Kelly backed off those statements for the special election, saying at a news
conference with a group of seniors that he planned to strengthen Social Security
and Medicare and opposed any privatizations.
Seniors are especially important in the district because of the large number of
retirees and former military personnel. The district also tends to support
With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Barber won about 52 percent of the
vote while Kelly had 46 percent.
Giffords threw her support behind Barber and dashed back to Tucson during the
last days of the campaign to help her former district director. She was at a
Tucson hotel Tuesday night as Barber told supporters: “Life takes unexpected
turns and here we are, thanks to you.”
A beaming Giffords hugged him and kissed his forehead.
Bruce Merrill, a longtime pollster and senior research fellow at Arizona State
University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, rejected claims from
Democrats that Barber’s win sets the state stage for the party to win back
control of the House.
Merrill also said the election didn’t indicate whether the tea party has lost
traction in Arizona, but that it was simply a local election with a “decent but
not high” turnout, and went to Barber because of Giffords’ strong support for
“You can dance all around it all you want,” Merrill said. “But this is a
very clear indication that Gabrielle Giffords asked people to support Ron
Barber, and they did. It really wasn’t even close.”
He said now is the time for Kelly to reflect on his next move, whether he’ll be
able to continue to raise significant amounts of money and whether two other
Republicans running in the primary might be more viable candidates.
Merrill said that it’s too soon to predict what could happen in November after
redistricting makes the playing field more even among Republicans and Democrats,
and when more voters will show up to cast their vote for president.
“You’ll have a different group of people coming to the polls,” Merrill said.
“There’s a lot that can still happen.”
Follow Amanda Lee Myers on Twitter at https://twitter.com/#!/AmandaLeeAP