Race to Replace Giffords Provides the Next Bellwether

Josh Kraushaar

Gov. Scott Walker's decisive victory in last night's Wisconsin gubernatorial recall served as a telling benchmark for the presidential election, suggesting that Mitt Romney stands a good chance of competing with President Obama in the Democratic-leaning Rust Belt states. Next week’s special election in Arizona, to replace former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, will lend equal insight on the congressional state of play for November.

The race on Tuesday pits Democrat Ron Barber, Giffords’s former district director who was injured in last year’s Tucson shooting, against Republican Jesse Kelly, an outspoken tea party activist and military veteran who lost to Giffords in the 2010 midterms. The battle is being waged in a Republican-leaning Tucson district, but one filled with the type of voters Democrats will need to win over to maintain control of the Senate and be competitive in the House -- seniors and business-friendly independents.

For those expecting a polite, above-the-fray campaign given the circumstances surrounding the race, think again. This special election became a highly negative, personal campaign precisely because it’s serving to test-drive the themes that both Democrats and Republicans are planning to utilize across the battleground map. The political stakes are so high that civility is once again taking a back seat to politics as usual.

This special election provides a major test of the emerging congressional Democratic message for 2012: Republicans have become beholden to the tea party and want to decimate the social safety net through cuts to entitlements like Medicare and Social Security. In Kelly, the party has a perfect foil. In 2010, the former Marine ran a race that relied on conservative straight talk at the expense of his political standing. Giffords was one of the few vulnerable House Democrats who won reelection, because voters viewed Kelly as too far to the right.

Kelly has undergone something of a makeover for his second bid. But Democrats aren’t letting voters forget about his past statements, airing a barrage of negative campaign ads accusing him of wanting to eliminate Social Security and Medicare. One of the latest spots, commissioned by the House Majority super PAC, revisits his heated rhetoric against Giffords during last election cycle.

Republicans, meanwhile, see an equally promising opportunity with this special election, and believe they have a fighting chance to win a seat that under normal circumstances should have been very tough to pick up. They view this race as a sign that the political environment is turning so poisonous for President Obama and down-ballot Democrats that even a hometown hero won’t be able to hang onto the seat that his old boss won under difficult circumstances in 2010.  

Internal polling from both sides shows that Obama is deeply unpopular in the district. The National Republican Congressional Committee has been inundating the district with ads accusing Barber of wanting to “rubber-stamp the Obama-[Nancy] Pelosi agenda.” The national party brand is so toxic that Barber wouldn’t even say he was voting for Obama at a recent debate, before clarifying his support later. 

Furthermore, Republicans believe they’ve identified a way to inoculate themselves on the entitlement attacks -- simply repeat the argument that Obama cut Medicare benefits himself with his unpopular health care law.  After suffering a stinging defeat last year in a New York special election over entitlements, the national campaign committee retooled and utilized that message to comfortably win a Republican-leaning Nevada House seat. This race is the rubber match for that message -- a win here would signal that the Obama and Democratic attacks painting the GOP as extreme on entitlements might not fly as easily as expected. Republican campaign officials say that despite Kelly’s vulnerabilities, seniors remain solidly in the GOP camp, according to their internal polling.

There’s also little doubt that the latest dismal jobs numbers will play a role in the race, even as it’s unclear who will bear the brunt of the impact. Obama stands to take a hit over the bad economic news, but will voters take out their frustrations on the president’s party, or the conservative GOP House opposition? A Kelly victory would signal that down-ballot Democrats may be in as much trouble as Obama, given the economic downturn. If Barber wins, expect a more level playing field for control of the Senate and House.

Early voting started on May 17, and while more registered Republicans than Democrats have cast ballots, the breakdown so far is encouraging for Barber given the large GOP registration advantage in the district. Both sides believe the early results show the race is going down to the wire. Giffords is participating in a last-minute get-out-the-vote concert this week for Barber, but hasn’t yet appeared in any advertising on his behalf.

Special elections don't always predict the outcome of future elections, but they can offer telling clues about the future political environment. That adage is doubly significant this month.  After Walker's win Tuesday night, a Kelly victory would be a sign that 2012 could very well be another wave election for the Republicans.