In a closely watched race nationally, Democrat Ron Barber, a former aide to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, has retained her seat in a special election against Republican Tea Party supporter Jesse Kelly. Holding onto a House seat in a Republican-leaning district in Arizona will be welcome news indeed for Democrats.
Rep. Giffords barely survived an assassination attempt in January 2011 and resigned earlier this year in order to fully focus on recovering from a gunshot wound to the head. Barber was her chief administrative aide and will now represent the 8th Congressional District in Arizona, which stretches roughly from Tucson to the Mexico border.
Rep. Giffords narrowly defeated Kelly in 2010 by 3,500 votes out of 273,000, about 1.2%. Barber won last night by seven points, 52-45, substantially increasing the lead over Kelly. Since this was a special election to fill Rep. Giffords' seat, there will be a regular election in November in a re-drawn district, so Kelly may run again.
The 8th District has 424,000 voters and is 37.5% Republican, 31.5% Democrat, and 30% independent. Republicans outnumber Democrats by about 25,000. While Tucson can certainly be conservative, it is generally more socially liberal than other parts of the state, especially Phoenix.
A poll released Monday by Public Policy Polling said Barber enjoyed a high favorability rating while Kelly had very high negatives. Fifty-seven percent of those polled had already cast their votes by mail and those early voters supported Barber by 21%. Mail-in votes have historically favored Republicans, but that trend has been changing as more people opt to vote by mail. Interestingly, considerably fewer likely voters wanted the Democrats to control the House than actually supported Barber. Clearly, there was another dynamic happening aside from partisan politics.
Rep. Giffords had a 67% favorability rating when she ran, which means far more people viewed her in a positive light than voted for her. Barber ran as a moderate and in much the same way that Rep. Giffords did, as a likeable centrist. Kelly tried to make the election a referendum on Obama while Barber accurately portrayed Kelly as an extremist who wanted to dismantle Social Security and Medicare. It should be noted there is also a considerable amount of retirees in the 8th District.
Democrats may have found a strategy that works in Arizona's 8th Congressional District. Run as a moderate and use Republican extremism on Medicare and Social Security against them.