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Former Gabrielle Giffords aide, Ron Barber, wins her seat in special election

Ron Barber, who almost lost his life in the Arizona
shooting rampage that wounded former Rep. Gabrielle
Giffords, won a special election to succeed her, giving
Democrats a psychological boost after last week’s failed
effort to recall Wisconsin’s Republican governor.

Appearing with Giffords at a Tucson hotel after his
victory Tuesday night, Barber told supporters, “Life takes
unexpected turns and here we are, thanks to you.” Giffords
hugged him and kissed his forehead.

Barber defeated Republican Jesse Kelly, who narrowly lost
to Giffords in 2010 in a competitive district that
Republicans have won in the last two presidential
elections. Giffords has made few public appearances since
resigning in January to focus on her recovery, but she
dashed back to Tucson during the campaign’s final days to
help her former district director.

Democratic officials were quick to argue that the victory
sets the stage for them to win back control of the House.

“This campaign previewed the message fight that will play
out across the country in November: Democrats committed to
protecting the middle class, Social Security and Medicare
versus misleading Republican attacks on Obamacare and
national Democrats,” said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y.,
chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign
Committee.

But Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, the chairman of the
National Republican Congressional Committee, said special
elections are unique and the Arizona race was particularly
so because of what had happened to Giffords. He predicted
that Barber would not fare as well in the fall with
President Barack Obama leading the ticket.

“No one wanted this election to happen or to see Gabrielle
Giffords step down from Congress, but Jesse ran a campaign
focused on pro-growth policies that will lead to less
government and a strong and vibrant economy,” Sessions
said.

In his concession speech, Kelly said: “We executed the
plan we wanted. The voters of southern Arizona did
something different.”

Republicans had sought to make the contest a referendum on
Obama and his handling of the economy. Democrats played to
the senior vote by contending that Kelly would not protect
Medicare and Social Security.

With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Barber won about
52 percent of the vote while Kelly had 46 percent.

Both candidates have promised to run for a full term in
the fall, setting up a possible November rematch in a
redrawn district that is friendlier to Democrats.
Republican voters outnumber Democratic voters by about
26,000 under the current map. That edge will narrow to
about 2,000 under redistricting.

Elsewhere Tuesday, Virginia, North Dakota, Nevada, Maine,
Arkansas and South Carolina held primary elections.

In Virginia, George Allen, a former governor and senator,
brushed aside three rivals in the Republican Senate
primary. Allen’s victory set up a November clash with
another former Virginia governor, Democrat Tim Kaine, in a
campaign closely tied to the presidential race in a state
both parties consider vital for victory.

In North Dakota, Rep. Rick Berg defeated businessman Duane
Sand in the state’s Republican Senate primary. Berg faces
Democrat Heidi Heitkamp in the November race to replace
retiring Sen. Kent Conrad. The election is expected to
play a critical role in determining which party controls
the Senate.

Voters also decided to let the University of North Dakota
scrap its controversial nickname, the Fighting Sioux. The
NCAA had deemed the name hostile and abusive, and placed
the university under postseason sanctions. The state’s
Board of Education is expected to retire the moniker and
American Indian head logo.

In Nevada, Republican Sen. Dean Heller and Democratic Rep.
Shelley Berkley easily defeated a slate of political
unknowns in their respective primaries. Their fall race
will be one of the most competitive in the country.

In Maine, state Sen. Cynthia Dill won the Democratic
primary in the race to succeed Republican Sen. Olympia
Snowe. Maine Secretary of State Charles Summers won the
GOP nomination.

The front-runner, former two-term Gov. Angus King, wasn’t
on the ballot because he’s running as an independent.

No statewide races were part of the Arkansas and South
Carolina primaries.

Of all the races Tuesday, the Arizona House race was the
most closely watched, partly because of Giffords’
absorbing story and partly because holding onto the seat
is important for Democrats if they want to regain control
of the House.

The party needs big gains in November to grab the majority
from Republicans, who now hold a 240-192 advantage with
three vacancies, including Giffords’ seat.

Republicans, riding high after a decisive victory in
Wisconsin’s gubernatorial recall election last week, set
their sights on Arizona. A victory would have given party
leaders a chance to claim momentum five months before
November and fine-tune their plan to link Democratic
candidates to Obama, the incumbent at the top of the
ticket.

Outside groups spent more than $2 million on the race.
Barber, 66, had a sizable fundraising lead in late May,
but spending from conservative groups helped reduce the
Democratic financial edge.

The Arizona 8th is a rare district that is competitive
virtually every election. Giffords defeated Kelly by about
4,000 votes in 2010, when the election focused on
immigration and when tea partyers rallied to the tough-
talking former Marine. Now, the economy and jobs are
voters’ top concerns.

Democratic officials were thrilled that Barber won a
district that President George W. Bush carried with 54
percent of the vote in 2004 and that John McCain carried
with 53 percent of the vote when he ran against Obama.

Kelly, 30, spent the campaign arguing that Barber and
Obama are out of touch with people in the district. He
called for lower taxes and more energy production as ways
to improve the economy. And he said he would roll back
federal regulations and environmental protections in an
effort to boost oil and gas drilling.

___

Freking reported from Washington. Associated Press writers
Carson Walker contributed from Tucson and Dave Kolpack
contributed from Fargo.