Arizona holding special election in the shadow of Obama, former Rep. Giffords

President Obama and former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) aren’t on the ballot in Tuesday’s special election, but the two have become central figures in the fight for control of the southern Arizona district.

From the start of the race, Republicans attempted to make the contest about Obama and Democrat Ron Barber’s support for the president and his policies. But in recent weeks, as the national fight between the two parties has escalated, the race has taken on a larger significance for both.

Limping out of a brutal two weeks for Democrats punctuated by a damaging jobs report, a major loss in Wisconsin and a gaffe by Obama, Democrats are eager for a win in a nationally watched contest to stop the bleeding and demonstrate that momentum is still on their side.

But for voters in Tucson, Ariz., the contest between Barber and Republican Jesse Kelly to finish the rest of Giffords’s term evokes memories of the assassination attempt in January 2011 that killed six people, critically wounded Giffords and left much of the community traumatized.

Both sides have anticipated the race will be extremely tight, and neither campaign was willing to predict victory on Monday.

A survey released Monday by Democratic firm Public Policy Polling showing Barber with a 12-point lead over Kelly caught both candidates off guard — and both parties pushed back on the poll, highlighting the uncertainty that extended into the final hours of the race.

Democrats — not wanting to set the bar too high — noted that the poll’s methodology relied on there being a double-digit swing in Democratic performance in the district over the past four years. 

Republicans — not wanting voters to consider the race a done deal and stay home on Tuesday — concurred, arguing the poll was invalid and skewed.

“I’m pretty sure they polled [House Democratic leader Nancy] Pelosi’s [Calif.] district instead of mine,” Kelly told The Hill.

Kelly and Republicans have been doing everything they can to keep voters focused on Obama, hoping that a win in the desert can undercut Democrats’ claims that Arizona is in play in the presidential race.

One Republican close to the Kelly campaign said it had become known within the campaign as “the Barack O’Barber approach.”

“The goal from the beginning was to nationalize the campaign and to make it a referendum on the president,” said the operative. “There is no Ron Barber, there’s just Barack Obama.”

Kelly said his campaign’s polling suggested the race would come down to turnout. A source close to his campaign said Republicans were predicting a win by 2 to 5 points.

“It seems desperate,” one Arizona Democratic strategist said of the attempt to tie Barber to Obama. “They have a candidate who has some really extremist positions, who’s been caught red-handed flip-flopping on them.”

Both parties and their allies are highly invested in the race for the southern Arizona district, a toss-up seat along the Mexican border that leans slightly Republican in voter registration but sent Giffords to Congress for three terms until she resigned in January — one year after being shot in the head.

All told, about $2.3 million has been spent via independent expenditures in the district this cycle. 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 Pelosi, invested another $515,000.

In Arizona, Democrats from across the state converged in the Tucson region a few days before Election Day, hoping a last-minute ground-game push could put Barber over the edge. Former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.), who is running to reclaim a House seat in November, came down with her entire campaign team to pitch in for Barber, and Democratic Senate candidate Richard Carmona has a team on the ground as well.

For Kelly, a win on Tuesday would require just a few thousand more votes than 2010, when he came within 2 points of unseating Giffords. But Kelly’s near-win in 2010 came during a massive GOP wave, a phenomenon few analysts expect to be replicated in 2012.

And Barber has the additional allure of his connections to Giffords. Barber served as Giffords’s district director until her resignation and was shot twice in the spree that also wounded Giffords.

Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, were an omnipresent force in the election, with Arizona voters keenly aware of the stakes of the race to replace Giffords, a popular politician whose esteem in the state has only grown since the shooting.

But although Giffords asked Barber to run to replace her and endorsed him from the beginning, her presence loomed in the background of the race — until the final week.

That’s when Giffords attended a rally and concert to galvanize support for Barber, and when House Majority PAC aired a controversial ad using a clip of Kelly calling Giffords a “hero of nothing.” Republicans balked, pointing out that Kelly had made those remarks during his campaign against Giffords in 2010, before the shooting.

“Everyone about a week ago was expecting an ad where there’s a Giffords and Barber picture, and it never materialized,” said the GOP operative.

But Republicans said they were dismayed to see how, in the waning days of the campaign, Democrats were exploiting Giffords by invoking her name constantly and referring to the seat repeatedly as “Gabby’s seat.”

“He’s done everything he can to take the focus away from the fact he supports ObamaCare and an energy tax,” Kelly said of Barber. “I see it as a rebuke to Barack Obama’s agenda.”

A separate, regular election is set for the fall for the full term that starts in 2013. But the winner of Tuesday’s special election will have the advantage of incumbency — plus a tried-and-tested campaign structure and fundraising network.

At least one Democrat who cleared out of the primary out of deference to Barber — before Barber announced his intentions to seek a full term — has said he will run in the fall regardless of the result of Tuesday’s primary. The same is true for at least one of the three Republicans who lost to Kelly in the GOP primary.

But strategists on both sides cast doubt that the winner of the special election will face serious primary opposition when voters return to the polls in August — this time for an election using redrawn lines that make the district slightly more favorable to Democrats.