Democrat Ron Barber defeated Republican Jesse Kelly in an emotionally charged and nationally watched special election Tuesday to replace former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).
In what both candidates predicted would be an extremely close race, Barber finished 6 points ahead of Kelly, taking 52 percent of the vote to Kelly’s 46, with 100 percent of precincts reporting.
In Pima County, home to Tucson and the grocery store where Giffords nearly lost her life, Barber led Kelly by double digits. Even in the more conservative Cochise and Pinal counties, where Kelly got the most votes, Barber performed better against Kelly than Giffords did two years ago.
Barber thanked Giffords for her legacy and pledged to continue her work in Washington.
"This was never Gabby's seat. It's not my seat. It's your seat. This seat belongs to the people of Southern Arizona," he said. "I promise I will work every bit as hard as [former Reps.] Mo Udall, Jim Kolbe and Gabrielle Giffords to honor that trust."
In his address to supporters, Kelly said, "We are blessed by God to live in a country where voters get exactly what they want. So they have spoken here and we respect that."
"Congressman-elect Barber follows in the footsteps of our extraordinary colleague, Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, and he has enormous shoes to fill," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement touting the victory for Democrats. "Gabby left a legacy of strength, resolve, and independence in the House. We look forward to Ron Barber continuing in that same tradition."
From the moment Giffords stepped down from the House in January, it became clear that the process to replace her would attract interest on multiple levels. The events of January 8, 2011 – when a gunman shot Giffords in the head, killed six people and wounded more than a dozen others — still hangs heavy over the residents of Tucson, Ariz., a moderate enclave amid a much more conservative state.
Among those injured was Barber, Giffords’s former district director, who suffered bullet wounds to the face and leg.
Barber ran unopposed in the special primary, and Kelly defeated three other Republicans to win the nomination. A Tea Party favorite, Kelly came within 2 points of unseating Giffords when she ran for her third term in 2010, proving to Democrats that this was not a district they could afford to take for granted.
The race between Kelly and Barber — compacted in time because of the special election — quickly took on meanings much greater than the single House seat.
Republicans worked to tie Barber to President Obama, who lost the district by 6 points in 2008 to home-state Sen. John McCain (R).
Democrats made use of an engaged electorate to test their messaging for the fall on Medicare and Social Security, where they spotted great weaknesses for Kelly.
Both parties looked to the race to test the pulse of the Tea Party-backed Republicans who cost Democrats their majority two years ago.
Amid the GOP wave of 2010, when Kelly ran against Giffords, Kelly had taken a hard line against entitlement spending, arguing that programs for senior citizens are Ponzi schemes that should be privatized, phased out and eventually eliminated. When he attempted to whitewash those positions in 2012, Democrats pounced, impugning his credibility and the sincerity of his vows to protect Arizona seniors.
Kelly, making use of Barber’s work for the Democratic congresswoman, tied Barber to Obama’s policies on healthcare, energy and taxes, hoping to create distance between Barber and the district’s fiscal conservatives.
Both parties and their allied groups poured in money from Washington and across the country. The National Republican Congressional Committee spent about $850,000 on the special election, while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee dropped almost $500,000. House Majority PAC, a super-PAC backed by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), invested another $515,000, including on a controversial ad reminding voters that Kelly had spoken ill of Giffords during their 2010 race.
To the surprise of many Republicans, Democrats didn’t pull out their trump card — Giffords — until the final week of the campaign. Giffords had personally asked Barber to run to replace her and endorsed his campaign the day he announced. But the popular former congresswoman, who is still undergoing rehabilitation related to her injuries, had not appeared publicly in support of his campaign.
Giffords attended a free concert and rally for Barber on Saturday, then visited with volunteers at his campaign headquarters on Sunday. At her side was her husband, who spoke on her behalf and told reporters that Giffords is working to return to public service. As voters headed to the polls on Tuesday, Giffords appeared at her precinct with Barber and delivered her vote to send her former staffer to the seat she had inhabited since 2006.
Because Giffords was replaced by a fellow Democrat, the results do not change the balance of power in the House, where Democrats still need to flip 25 seats in November to reclaim the majority. But Democrats, looking to galvanize donors and supporters for the fall, have been eager for a win to point to suggesting voters in competitive districts will side with them on Election Day.
Good omens have been few for most of June for Democrats, who suffered a bad May jobs report, a humbling defeat in a recall election in Wisconsin and fundraising reports showing them getting outpaced by Republicans and likely GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. But the unique dynamics of the special election made it difficult to extract sweeping conclusions about the wider contest between Republicans and Democrats.
Republicans immediately worked to downplay the results of the race, calling it a unique special election brought about by a tragic turn of events.
“It is clear that Ron Barber knew that voters in this district would never accept his true positions on President Obama’s agenda which have made a bad economy worse in this state," said National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas). "That explains why he did his best to conceal his support for so much of that agenda."
After being sworn in, Barber will serve the remainder of Giffords’s term, which runs until the end of the year. A separate, regular election for the full term starting in 2013 will take place in the fall — with Barber as the incumbent.
Although Barber didn’t say when he first announced whether he would also run for a full term, he later said he planned to run in both races. The regular election in the fall will take place under new congressional lines, which make the toss-up district slightly more competitive for Democrats.
—This story was posted at 12:45 a.m. and has been updated.