PHOENIX – Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ hand-picked Democratic candidate won a special election Tuesday in southern Arizona to finish her term, defeating a Republican who narrowly lost to Giffords in 2010. The race was a hard-fought preview of the broader fall campaign to come.
Both the GOP and the Democrats used the race to hone and test their political arguments for the November elections, when everything from the White House on down will be on the ballot.
Republicans, sensing a chance to capture the former congresswoman’s seat, sought to make the contest a referendum on President Barack Obama and his handling of the economy. They argued that Democrat Ron Barber, a former Giffords aide asked by the lawmaker to pursue the seat, would fall in line behind the White House.
Democrats, in turn, played to the senior vote by contending that Republican Jesse Kelly would not protect Medicare and Social Security.
Both candidates promised to run for a full term in the fall, setting up a possible November rematch in a redrawn district that is friendlier to Democrats. Republican voters outnumber Democratic voters by about 26,000 under the current map. That edge will narrow to about 2,000 under redistricting.
Giffords, 42, resigned in January to concentrate on her recovery from a gunshot wound to her head. She and Barber were injured in the January 2011 shooting rampage outside a Tucson grocery store that killed six people. Giffords largely shunned public appearances in the race, but in the closing days she stepped out to help Barber.
Outside groups spent more than $2 million on the race. Barber, 66, had a sizable fundraising lead in late May, but spending from conservative groups helped reduce the Democratic financial edge.
The Arizona 8th is a rare district that is competitive virtually every election. Giffords defeated Kelly by about 4,000 votes in 2010 when the election focused on immigration. Now, the economy and jobs are voters’ top concerns.