The outcome of a special election in Arizona today to fill former U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords’ seat could highlight the growing influence of independent voters nationwide and provide clues about how voters are leaning in this fall’s presidential contest.
The race pits Democrat Ron Barber, 66, a former aide to Giffords, against Republican Jesse Kelly, 30, a construction manager. Giffords resigned in January to focus on her recovery from a gunshot wound she sustained a year earlier while holding a community meeting outside a Tucson, Arizona, supermarket. The winner will serve the remaining six months of Giffords’ term.
“Certainly we look at independent voters as being crucial for the results this fall in swing states like Ohio, Florida and Colorado,” said Jessica Taylor, a senior analyst at the nonpartisan Washington-based Rothenberg Political Report. “As for this district itself, it is very much a swing district. We’ve seen that in the past few elections.”
The contest between Barber and Kelly follows the 2010 general election in Arizona’s Republican-leaning 8th congressional district, in which moderate Democrat Giffords, who had held her seat since 2007, bested Kelly, an Iraq war veteran, by fewer than 2 percentage points, or about 4,000 votes.
The Arizona special election is considered a test -- following a contest on June 5 in which Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a Republican, beat back a recall attempt -- of trends that may influence the race between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.
“After Wisconsin, if Kelly wins, the Republicans are going to say ‘the wind is at our back and this is a harbinger of what’s going to happen in the general election,’” said Brint Milward, director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, and the University of Arizona’s School of Government and Public Policy. “If Barber wins, the Democrats are going to say ’Wisconsin was an isolated case.’”
It’s difficult to judge who’s ahead after months of negative advertising financed by outside interests, including both parties’ national campaign committees, Taylor said. Also complicating the race are questions about turnout, which can be lower in summer months, and the special circumstances surrounding Giffords’ injury. There is a third candidate in the race, the Green Party’s Charlie Manolakis.
A poll released yesterday by Public Policy Polling of Raleigh, North Carolina, found Barber leading Kelly 53 percent to 41 percent, with Manolakis at 4 percent. The firm said the telephone survey of 1,058 likely voters, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, “suggests Democrats are unusually motivated to come out and vote” to keep Giffords’ seat.
“We’ve had other previous special elections of people resigning for personal reasons, or personal scandals, or they are appointed to higher office,” Taylor said. “This is one where a congresswoman had to step down because of a horrific injury -- we’re not sure how that will play in voters’ minds.”
Giffords was shot in the head during the attack that left six people dead. Barber was wounded in the attack, and his cheek still exhibits a dimple from the injury.
Social issues, such as Social Security, Medicare and health care reform, dominated the Arizona campaign along with the economy. The state posted the nation’s eighth-highest foreclosure rate in April, according to RealtyTrac Inc.
Barber and Obama
Using a strategy that helped flip seats their way in 2010, Republicans sought to tie Barber to Obama, Taylor said. Barber declined to answer a question during a debate with Kelly in May about how he would vote for president in November. Barber later issued a statement saying he would vote for Obama.
“Ron Barber’s efforts to deceive the public about his support for President Obama and all of his failed policies shows just how damaging the Obama agenda has become for Democrat candidates,” Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said by e-mail.
In a telephone interview, Barber’s campaign emphasized that the candidate is seeking to make the campaign about issues, rather than personalities.
“Republicans have focused on trying to polarize the district,” said Rodd McLeod, a Barber spokesman. “We’ve focused on trying to reverse that polarity.”
An ad paid for by the pro-Democratic House Majority PAC features clips of Kelly, including a statement during the heated 2010 campaign with Giffords -- months before the shooting -- in which he said: “She stands there with that smile and pretends to be some kind of hometown hero. She’s a hero of nothing.”
The 30-second commercial, part of a six-figure TV advertising campaign that started June 4 and will run through today, also includes clips of Kelly backing a zero-percent corporate tax rate and saying Medicare and social security are “the biggest Ponzi schemes in U.S. history.”
Kelly’s campaign said the ads were misleading and took his comments out of context.
“The attack ads are heavily edited,” said John Ellinwood, a spokesman for Kelly. “If you go back and watch the original video in its entirety, you’ll see Jesse has always clarified in all his statements that we must pay these benefits and we will pay these benefits.”
Barber out-fundraised Kelly for most of the campaign, bringing in 37 percent more through May 23, or about $1.19 million to Kelly’s $756,173, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics.
Outside groups, including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee, the pro-Democratic super PAC House Majority PAC and the pro-Republican super PAC American Crossroads, poured more than $2.2 million into the race, according to documents on the center’s website.
The special election is for a term that lasts only through early January. Regardless of today’s outcome, Barber and Kelly are expected to immediately start campaigning all over again for a full two-year term.
In the regular primary election Aug. 28, there are two other Republicans on the ballot besides Kelly -- Martha McSally and Mark Koskiniemi. McSally, a retired Air Force colonel who was the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat, finished second to Kelly in the four-way special election primary April 17. Koskiniemi is a political newcomer who works for the Pima County government.
Besides Barber, there is another Democrat in the August primary race, state Representative Matt Heinz, an internal medicine doctor who backed Barber in the special election.
The winners of the August primary will face off in the Nov. 6 general election for the full term beginning in January in a district that will be slightly more Democratic as a result of decennial redistricting.
The current district leans Republican, with about 159,200 Republicans registered to vote, compared to 133,751 Democrats and 128,242 who filed as other, according to voter registration figures from the Arizona Secretary of State.
The growing number of independent voters in Arizona echoes a broader trend, as those who identify themselves as independent nationally jumped to 38 percent from 32 percent in 2008, according to 2012 surveys conducted by the Washington-based Pew Research Center.
“The proportion of independents is now higher than at any point in more than two decades,” according to a Pew report released June 4. “Looking back even further, independents are more numerous than at any point in the last 70 years.”
The district now represented by Giffords has long been viewed as competitive for both parties. A Republican held the seat for more than two decades before Giffords’ election in 2006.