Outside groups allow candidates to remain civil in Giffords special election

Rachel Rose Hartman
June 12, 2012

In the aftermath of shock and sorrow that followed the Jan. 2011 shooting that left Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords fighting for her life there were bipartisan calls for comity and civility across the nation. And in the race to replace Giffords, candidates have waged relatively respectful campaigns. That's because in the post-Citizens United era, they can afford to.

The 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission determined that independent political spending by corporations and unions is protected under the First Amendment. So while candidates in the special election for Arizona's 8th congressional district have remained personally civil, outside groups have picked up the slack.

"And now she stands there with that smile and pretends to be some kind of hometown hero," Republican candidate Jesse Kelly, a marine veteran and Giffords' 2010 opponent, says of Giffords in a Democratic attack ad by the House Majority super PAC. "She's a hero of nothing."

The clip was from 2010 -- long before the shooting that left six people dead and wounded Giffords with a point-blank shot to her head -- but it packs a punch when taken out of context. Watch it below:

Arizona Democratic strategist Bob Grossfeld told Yahoo News that this strategy is to be expected. The fact that this is Giffords' former seat has kept attacks at bay "about as much as you can expect in a post-Citizens United world where I think clearly... there was an effort to not be perceived as being particularly negative or to attack the other individual personally," Grossfeld said of the candidates in the race.

[Slideshow: Giffords attends Barber rally]

He noted that candidates across the country can now run positive campaigns, knowing that outside groups can do their dirty work for them.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has been lobbing most of the visible attacks at Ron Barber, who served as Giffords' district director.

"ObamaCare? National Energy Tax? Lost jobs? More debt? Of course, Ron Barber supported it," an announcer states in a television ad paid for by the NRCC. "So can we trust Ron Barber to challenge Washington? Of course not."

Grossfeld believes nationalizing the race is ineffective -- a argument that Barber has used as well to criticize Republican efforts to tie him to the president.

Giffords, who continues to recover from her injuries, has remained largely absent from the race, and Barber has dismissed those who label the 8th District "Gabby's seat." But the congresswoman and her husband Mark Kelly have publicly backed Barber from the start, and the couple appeared at a get-out-the-vote concert for Barber on Saturday.

"This is a little about closure," Kelly said at the rally, according to news reports. "This closure on Gabby's career in Congress, it wasn't when she resigned in January. I really truly believe that this is this coming Tuesday."

A poll released Monday from Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling showed Barber up by 12 percentage points among likely voters, having captured a lead among early voters. Polls released leading up to this week showed a tight race. The district leans Republican, requiring Democrats to win support from independent voters to hold the seat.

Many analysts will no doubt attempt to tie the results of the special election to a national trend. But special elections are unique circumstances which traditionally draw low turnout and often have little bearing on how the rest of the country will vote.

The winner of Tuesday's race will serve out the remainder of Giffords' current term in Arizona's 8th District and will have the advantage of incumbency in the state's regularly scheduled primary for a full term beginning in the next Congress. The eventual winner in November will represent a newly-drawn and -numbered 2nd congressional district, which will encompass much of the current 8th District.