Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords’ sudden resignation this week from Congress may open the door for Republicans to take back the seat that she narrowly retained for a third term in 2010.
Giffords’ announcement Jan. 22 that she would leave the U.S. House to focus on her recovery from a gunshot to the head at a constituent event a year ago sets the stage for a special election to fill out her term, just months before the regular 2012 election.
Whether Giffords, 41, endorses someone, and how much her shadow hangs over the contest, could shape the outcome, strategists say. Arizona voters gave Giffords a 61 percent favorable rating in a November survey by Public Policy Polling of Raleigh, North Carolina. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
“It is very much up for grabs,” said Barry Dill, a Democratic political consultant at First Strategic Communications and Public Affairs in Phoenix. “Short of a Democrat getting Gabby’s endorsement, my feeling is that a credible Republican candidate could win.”
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, told the political news website Politico that his party is well-positioned for the fight. The seat was held for more than two decades by Republican Jim Kolbe before Giffords won election in 2006.
“That’s always been a very competitive seat,” Boehner said.
Giffords beat Tea Party-backed Republican Jesse Kelly by less than 2 percentage points in 2010.
The special election, with a primary potentially in April and general election in June, will be under the current congressional map. Republicans have a registration advantage in the district, which includes parts of Tucson.
If the work of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission passes federal and court scrutiny, a new map reflecting population changes will be used for the regular election. Legislative district boundaries are reconfigured once per decade so that they have approximately equal numbers of people.
Voter registration and the results of recent elections are used to calculate the so-called competitiveness of the district. The data show it shifting from a current Republican advantage of 53.3 percent to 46.7 percent to a more even split that favors Republicans 50.5 percent to 49.5 percent under the new map, said Willie Desmond, senior analyst for Strategic Telemetry, a mapping consultant for the commission.
Whether Giffords and husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, endorse or actively support a candidate in the race may make a difference, especially in the special election, said Thomas Volgy, a former Tucson mayor now teaching political science at the University of Arizona.
“I think virtually anyone in Gabby’s district who represents about the same contours she did is probably likely to win,” Volgy, a Democrat, said. “Gabby enjoys enormous popularity in the district. That person would have an enormous edge.”
Speculation about possible runs by Mark Kelly or members of Giffords staff has been rampant. If they do, it changes the landscape for Republicans, said David Wasserman, an analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
“The closer the candidate is to Giffords, the better chance that voters will see that candidate as the logical continuation of Giffords,” he said.
Wasserman said the resignation and subsequent special election may help Democrats more than if Giffords had served out her term.
Giffords or Issues?
“The question remains if the race revolves around Giffords or national politics,” Wasserman said. “If it is the latter, Republicans may have a chance.”
Republicans have the advantage in terms of candidates, in part because this could include those who have campaigned in the district before, said Nathan Sproul, a former executive director of the state Republican Party and now managing partner of Tempe-based Lincoln Strategy Group, a Republican consulting firm.
“This is one of the races where Republicans have a lot of good candidates to draw from and the Democrat pool is not quite as deep,” said Sproul, who has worked on campaigns in the district.
Jesse Kelly, the Republican who challenged Giffords in 2010, filed papers today with the Federal Election Commission indicating he plans to run again for the seat.
Among others said to be weighing the race are Dave Sitton, a sports announcer, and state Senator Frank Antenori, both Republicans, and state Representative Steve Farley, a Democrat who is the assistant minority leader, Sproul said. Nan Walden, a Democrat and former Senate staffer who is a Tucson businesswoman, is also weighing the race, said David Steele of Strategic Issues Management Group, a Democratic political consulting group in Tucson that represents Walden.
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, a Republican, must set the date for the special election within 72 hours of Giffords officially leaving Congress, said Matt Roberts, a spokesman for the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office. The primary would be held 80-90 days later, with the general election following 50-60 days after that.
The party primary for the regular election is Aug. 28, with the general election Nov. 6.