TUCSON, Ariz. — In the end, it was not all that close. In an agonizingly tense election to fill the seat of injured Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the vote went convincingly to Giffords’ hand-picked successor, Ron Barber.
Barber, a genial, avuncular man who had been an aide to Giffords during her five years in Congress, triumphed over Republican Jesse Kelly, 52 to 46 percent.
Kelly had lost to Giffords by a razor-thin margin in 2010.
As amiable as Barber seems on the surface, his campaign was anything but gentle.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee targeted Kelly for statements he had made during the 2010 election, running clips in which he called the overwhelmingly popular Giffords “useless,” and combatively rejected Giffords’ “radical socialist agenda.”
This was, of course, before Giffords was shot in the head by a gunman in Tucson in January 2011.
Giffords herself made several appearances to campaign for Barber, and was on hand for the victory celebration Tuesday night.
The Arizona Republican Party issued a graceless and grudging statement following Barber’s win:
"Tonight’s result in Southern Arizona’s CD-8 Special Election unnervingly proves that some political races are less about issues and leadership and more about emotions and personalities," the statement said.
But Kelly did have a lot to answer for; his belligerent, bulldog style of campaigning did not sit well with some voters, and his frequent calls for privatizing Social Security and phasing out Medicare made some of his constituents anxious.
Although he has toned down his rhetoric for this election, Kelly once famously called Social Security “the biggest Ponzi scheme in history.” Kelly's 2010 campaign featured photos of him in camouflage gear and toting a military assault rifle.
Kelly seemed eager to forget those and other such excesses this time around, but the Democrats are intent on keeping them fresh in the voters’ minds.
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Congressional District 8 comprises parts of several counties in southwestern Arizona, including much of Tucson, the state’s second-largest city after Phoenix.
“Yeah, Jesse does say some strange things,” said one Tucson resident, who identified himself as a retired law enforcement officer. He was speaking a few days before the election. “But I’m going to vote for him anyway.”
Giffords had represented Congressional District 8 since 2007, but stepped down in January to focus on her recovery.
Barber was also injured in the attack at a Tucson shopping center, which killed six and wounded 12. The alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, is still undergoing hearings to determine his mental competency to stand trial.
Barber’s win provides a much-needed lift to the Democratic Party, which has been running a rear-guard action to retake control of the House ever since the 2010 mid-term elections gave the Republicans an impressive majority.
Bitter partisan rivalry has all but paralyzed the government ever since.
Democrats are hoping that Barber will be able to retain his seat in the general elections in November, when he will most likely face Kelly once again.
Some will be tempted to see Tuesday’s results as a sign that Arizona, a swing state leaning toward Republican Mitt Romney, might be up for grabs in the presidential poll.
But it is too soon to draw any conclusions from Barber’s win.
Arizona is a fiercely independent state that likes to thumb its nose at Washington whenever it gets the chance.
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This is a state that tried to ban Martin Luther King Day when the federal government “forced” it on the country in 1983. Arizona steadfastly refused to celebrate the holiday until 1992, when it finally buckled to pubic pressure.
Tourists had organized a boycott of Arizona, and in 1993, the XXVII Super Bowl was moved from Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona to the Rose Bowl, in Pasadena, California in protest of Arizona’s stance.
“We just do things like that,” said Connie Thomason, a retired stockbroker who lives in Tucson. “We like to show that we can’t be pushed around.”
Not to mention the state’s contentious immigration law, mentioned in a previous Highway 2012 post, that has sparked anti-Arizona boycotts, too.
The state is bitterly divided, with staunch Republicans protesting the Democratic policies of “handouts” that they see as ruining the economy and depressing the American spirit of free enterprise. Liberals, on the other hand, rail against the Republicans’ stance on social issues, and say that Republican economic policies of rewarding the rich at the expense of the middle class will send the country into a deep depression.
“Arizona is very polarized,” said Thomason, who tends to vote Republican. “There is very little room in the middle.”
This was apparent in Tuesday’s election — people were passionate on both sides of the issue.
In the end, the Democrats won. But for how long?