‘Gabby’s seat’: Opponents face off in race to replace wounded lawmaker

On Tuesday, two candidates in Arizona will face off in an emotionally charged special election to determine who will serve out the remainder of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ term.

Giffords resigned in January after she was badly wounded in a shooting rampage.

Jesse Kelly, a former Marine, is the Republican candidate. He ran against Giffords in 2010, losing by a narrow margin. The Democrat is Giffords’ former chief of staff, Ron Barber.

A Public Policy Polling poll released on Monday found Barber with a 12-point lead over Kelly, 53 percent to 41 percent. But those involved in the race were skeptical of the results.

“Our feeling is this that it’s going to be a tight race; it’s going to come down to turn out,” said Arizona Democratic Party Communications Director Frank Camacho.

“The poll’s a poll, but it’s still gonna be a very tight race,” he said, adding that they were “confident,” but “not at all complacent.”

“I think it’s nip and tuck, and I think it could go either way,” echoed Barry Aarons, an Arizona public policy consultant.

“The registration figures have been better for the Republicans lately,” he said. The expected high turn out, he added, would also tend to benefit Republicans because it brings out the voters who come out more regularly.

Giffords may have resigned, but she is still a presence in the race. Barber is her handpicked successor and also sustained wounds the day she was shot. And to many people, that means a lot.

“There’re a lot of folks down there that … who feel that this is Gabby’s seat,” Aarons said.

“There is that emotional quotient, as you put it,” Camacho said. “She is a beloved person here throughout Arizona. … And Gabby trusted Ron Barber and still continues to trust Ron Barber. That does say something to the people of southern Arizona.”

But the fact that Giffords has been a physical presence in the race, coming out and campaigning for Barber last week, does not bode well for the Democrats, Aarons suggested.

That “indicates to me that their numbers suggest that it’s not a runaway for them,” Aarons said. “I don’t think she would have come out and done that if they thought they weren’t still in a race.”

Because this is a special election, come November the seat will once again be up for grabs. Both Barber and Kelly have said they will run for the seat again in the fall, regardless of what happens on Tuesday. But the district they will be running in will change as a result of redistricting, becoming more favorable for Democrats.

“If Barber does win this thing, I think it’ll be really tough for Republicans to take him out in November,” Aarons said. “On the other hand, if Jesse Kelly wins it, good shot of holding on to it” as the incumbent.

This special election could be the last shot for both Barber and Kelly. This is Kelly’s second run for the seat; he lost narrowly to Giffords in 2010.

“If he loses again tomorrow, I think it would be tough for him to come in and run again in November in a less-favorable district,” Aarons added.