Last Tuesday voters in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District voted to replace Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) with her long-time aid, Ron Barber.  The election was marked by heavy outside spending, intense partisanship and sympathetic feelings to Giffords and her hand-picked successor.

In early 2011 the political world, not to mention America’s world, was shocked to learn that Giffords had been shot outside a Tuscon supermarket meeting with constituents.  Barber was also shot but not as severely as the Congresswoman.  Giffords suffered substantial brain damage after being shot in the head and it is a miracle she survived.  However for six others, including a retired federal judge and a little girl, they were not so lucky.

Democrats needed the victory after Scott Walker’s substantial win in the WI gubernatorial recall the previous Tuesday.  With the victory Democrats can now claim they have stalled, or at least slowed the GOP’s momentum heading into November.  But this race was far more unique than the prior two special election races since 2010.

Republicans lost a Republican leaning seat in NY early in 2011 after the sitting Congressman resigned to avoid a scandal.  Republicans fielded a poor candidate and Democrats pounced.  The connection between the two races largely centers around the message.  The GOP nominee was crucified over the recently passed Paul Ryan Budget which was said to cut entitlements.  The district, overwhelmingly old, rejected the budget and the nominee.

Later in 2011 Democrats faced losing their own seat in NYC.  Congressman Anthony Wiener was embroiled in a scandal and resigned.  His district, solidly Democratic looked safe.  But the GOP nominated a moderate businessman and Democrats a horrid city councilman as their nominee.  Combined with the issues circulating in the district, including Obama’s remarks against Israel taking a strong stand against Iran’s nuclear weapons program the GOP nominee, Bob Turner, coasted to an easy 8 point win in a district that backed Obama by 10 points in 2008.

Both of these prior special elections were hailed as harbingers of 2012 yet the polls have not moved heavily one way or the other.  The generic ballot leans Democratic to neutral and the Senate playing field slightly favors the GOP.

AZ-8’s race was not even as fiery as the prior two special elections.  Nor even the 2010 race between Kelly and Giffords.  Kelly’s ads were more down to earth while Barber hit Kelly on comments he has made about entitlements.

Both sides were roughly equal in spending on the race.  Outside groups also spent some but the Democrats had the edge.  Apparently the GOP and its affiliated Super PACs felt they could win elsewhere.

Perhaps the one big takeaway from the race relates to turnout.  In 2010 Giffords won the absentee vote while Kelly won the actual election day vote.  In 2012 Barber won the absentee vote and Kelly the actual day vote again.  The one thing AZ-8 could point to is that both sides in races across the country should focus on early voting as soon as possible.  AZ-8 shows it swings elections.

The district is changing due to redistricting.  It will be renumbered AZ-2 and will take in less of Tuscon and more rural AZ.  The district on paper also looks more friendly to Democrats as the GOP’s registration edge drops to less than 2,000.  However, the district expands to take in quite a few new voters who do not know Giffords, Barber or even Kelly from prior races.

The 2012 race for barber’s 1st term should be quite competitive.  Republicans were relieved when Kelly announced he would not run for a third straight time and they could begin to line up behind another nominee.  The sympathy vote Barber MAY have received also will not be as prevalent as in the AZ-8 special.  All this adds up to another competitive race in the new district in 2012.

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