By Josh Lederman - 04/17/12 09:00 AM EDT
A special primary election in Arizona on Tuesday marks the beginning of an emotional process to replace former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).
Four Republican candidates and one Democrat are vying to fill the seat left vacant by Giffords when she stepped down from the House in January, one year after a gunman killed six people and critically wounded Giffords at a constituent event in Tucson, Ariz.
The district is a toss-up and was held by former Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe (Ariz.) for more than two decades, but Giffords held on for three terms and was poised to win a fourth, in part due to her personal popularity and centrist approach to lawmaking.
Democrat Ron Barber, who was Giffords’s district director and was shot twice during the assassination attempt on Giffords, is unopposed in the primary — but that wasn’t always the case. A handful of Democrats signaled plans to run for the seat, but all bowed out after Giffords personally asked Barber to run for her seat. Many Arizona Democrats anticipated Barber would serve out the rest of Giffords’s term and then step aside, but he announced later that he will also pursue a full term.
Barber has not held elected office before, but has benefited from the good will Arizona voters hold toward Giffords and her former staff in the aftermath of a tragedy that rocked the community for months and prompted a national debate about the need for civility in politics.
Barber also has secured the support of much of the local political establishment — including from Republicans. Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik (R) and former Mayor Bob Walkup (R) both backed Barber. Major Democratic figures, including House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), have also come out to Arizona to support Barber’s campaign.
Republican Jesse Kelly, who came within two points of unseating Giffords in 2010, had the clearest advantage heading into the primary on Tuesday. Kelly raised more money than any of the other three Republicans — although the $210,000 he raised since the start of the year was less than half of what Barber brought in. A survey released Monday by Republican firm National Research Inc. showed Kelly as the only GOP candidate beating Barber, but the poll was called into question when the firm declined to reveal who had commissioned it.
State Rep. Frank Antenori is the only Republican in the field who has held elected office, but his campaign has largely fallen apart, marred by multiple campaign shake-ups, dismal fundraising and a failure to comply with campaign finance reporting requirements.
Republicans Dave Sitton and Martha McSally round out the Republican field. Sitton, a sports broadcaster associated with the University of Arizona athletics department, has wide name recognition in the region. McSally is a former colonel in the Air Force and has attracted some attention from national Republicans. But she has low name recognition in the region and raised less than $150,000 since the start of 2011.
The special election will be held under old congressional lines, but the regular election in the fall will take place under redrawn lines that are slightly more favorable to Democrats.