Giffords resignation sets off competitive special election for her Ariz. House seat

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords's (D-Ariz.) decision to resign from Congress has triggered a special election that both parties anticipate will be highly competitive.

Out of deference to Giffords, who has been recovering from a gunshot to the head since a Jan. 8, 2011, assassination attempt, Republicans vowed not to contest the district if the three-term congresswoman chose to run for reelection. But in a highly emotional video message to constituents on Sunday, Giffords said in halted, broken phrases that she had more work to do on her recovery, though she vowed to return to public life in the future.

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With Giffords out of the race, both the primary and the general election are likely to be hotly contested, according to interviews with more than 10 Arizona political insiders. The district encompasses most of Tucson and extends southward to Sierra Vista, a military town near the Mexico border. It leans slightly Republican, with a socially liberal but fiscally conservative bent, and has sent centrists from both parties to Congress. Former Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) held the seat for 11 terms before retiring in 2006.

“We’re looking at a situation where a lot has been thrown into the air,” Arizona Democratic Party Chairman Andrei Cherny told The Hill. “Gabby Giffords is irreplaceable in Congress, but the person who’s going to be able to win this seat is the person who is able to emulate her brand of common-sense problem solving.”

Raising the stakes in the race is a new congressional map that improves the chances for Democrats in the district, although Republicans will keep a slight advantage. The special election will be held under the old district lines, meaning the GOP will have one final chance to get a Republican into the seat who would then have the incumbent advantage heading into the regular election.

“Democrats should be concerned,” said David Waid, a Democratic strategist and former chairman of the state party, pointing out that Giffords won her 2010 reelection by less than 2 points.

“I still give some edge to Democrats, but it’s always been competitive, and both locally and nationally, Democrats needs to keep close attention,” he said.

There was no shortage of speculation about potential Democratic candidates, but most centered on those close to Giffords who could benefit from the tremendous good will that members of both parties have for the injured congresswoman.

Giffords’s husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, has long been floated as a possible candidate, but Arizona Democrats said they did not expect he would seek the seat.

Others have pointed to Giffords’s closest aides as possible replacements. Ron Barber, her district director, was also injured in the shooting rampage that killed six and wounded more than a dozen. And Pia Carusone, Giffords’s chief of staff, has served as the public face of her congressional office since the shooting and now holds wide name recognition in the district.

But Democratic insiders said a run by either would be unlikely. A message left Sunday for Carusone seeking comment was not returned.

“Whoever is closest to Gabby will have a fairly substantial advantage, if someone chooses to saddle up,” said Chuck Coughlin, an Arizona Republican strategist.

That advantage would be even greater if Giffords chooses to weigh in and endorse a candidate, but it remains to be seen whether she will have any interest in injecting herself into the race.

Other potential candidates that Democrats are floating include state Sen. Paula Aboud, retired Brig. Gen. John Adams and Arizona state Rep. Matt Heinz, an emergency-room physician who could draw the support of the medical community.

On the Republican side, state Sen. Frank Antenori had already formed an exploratory committee for the seat but was waiting on Giffords’s reelection decision before officially declaring a run. He told the Tucson Weekly on Sunday that the calculus had changed and he is weighing his options.

Another candidate who could be competitive is Jesse Kelly, a Tea Party-backed Republican who won the GOP primary in 2010 and came within 4,000 votes of unseating Giffords in the general election.

“He is seriously considering his options,” Kelly spokesman Jon Ellinwood said Monday.

Dave Sitton, a sports broadcaster associated with the University of Arizona athletics program, has also established an exploratory committee. One Republican consultant predicted that if Sitton ran, he would have the backing of Jim Click, an auto sales mogul and household name in southern Arizona whose support would guarantee fundraising success.

The last time around, Click backed Jonathan Paton, a former army officer who lost to Kelly in the primary. Paton has kept his campaign account open and could run again in the special election.

In Washington, both parties said it was too early to start talking specifics about candidates. The National Republican Congressional Committee said the race would be competitive regardless of the candidate, while a Washington Democratic operative predicted that recruitment decisions would be made more cautiously than in most races, out of respect for the delicate situation.

“She’s so popular, and rightfully so,” said J.P. Twist, a GOP consultant and former campaign spokesman for Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.). “She was a decent congresswoman, and now she’s been elevated to the highest level that anybody could ever be.”

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) has three days after Giffords formally resigns to call a special election primary to replace her. Under state law, the primary must be held within 80-90 days, but candidates will have only a month to submit signatures. A general election 50-60 days after the primary will determine who will serve the remainder of Giffords’s term, and a regular primary and general will then be held for the new term that starts in 2013.

State officials haven’t determined the exact dates, but a municipal election in March could provide an opportunity for the primary to piggyback on an already announced election date.

— This story was updated at 3:48 p.m.