Democrat Ron Barber won a special election to finish the term of his former boss, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who resigned in January to focus on recovering from a near fatal 2011 gunshot wound to her head. Barber, who was also wounded in that attack, beat Republican Jesse Kelly, 52 percent to 46 percent, in the Republican-leaning Tucson congressional district. Kelly, a Tea Party–backed Iraq War veteran, came much closer to unseating Giffords when he challenged her in 2010. Here are five things we learned from Barber's win:
1. This was an unusual election
The special election to replace Giffords was, well, special, says Eric Kleefeld at Talking Points Memo. Barber and Kelly were vying to fill the seat of a "respected and beloved" congresswoman, not a disgraced, scandal-plagued politician, as is typical with off-cycle elections. And, of course, nobody forgot the reason for the election, says Linda Feldmann at The Christian Science Monitor. Giffords campaigned with Barber, and residual emotions from the 2011 Tucson massacre they survived haunted the race, with some amount of sympathy rubbing off on Barber. By saying that "Kelly is not well-liked" in the district, "Republicans will be able to explain away" their loss.
2. But Democrats still welcome the win
Even though this race was "largely about unique local circumstances," Barber's "victory will still matter," says Feldmann. "After all, it's a Republican-leaning swing district," and the win gives Democrats a much-needed "respite from the negative narrative that has dogged President Obama" all month, from a blah jobs report to union-busting Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) surviving a recall attempt. And like Walker's victory, Barber won by "a bigger margin than strategists on both sides expected," says Alexander Burns at Politico. So while the race's "predictive value for November is uncertain," it clearly is "not a bad sign for the message House Democratic strategists hope to use."
3. Both parties got to test strategies for November
Local issues played some role in the election, but the outside groups that outspent the campaigns made Kelly and Barber "avatars for Mitt Romney and Barack Obama," says Terry Greene Sterling at The Daily Beast. Republican surrogates "deemed Barber a rubber stamp" for Obama, who's unpopular in the district, while Democrats painted Kelly as an extreme right-winger who's vowed to kill off Medicare and Social Security. The blame-Obama tactic worked for the GOP in 2010, but "the Democratic strategy appeared to have paid dividends" here, and they plan to repeat it in the fall, says Aaron Blake at The Washington Post.
4. Money isn't everything in politics
As soon as Giffords announced her resignation, "pundits predicted the special election would be a big-money race influenced heavily by outside political groups," says Brady McCombs at the Arizona Daily Star. "They were right." The amounts aren't nearly as eye-popping as in other recent super-PAC-fueled showdowns, notably the Wisconsin recall, but outside groups poured $2.5 million into the race, with GOP-leaning groups outspending Democratic-leaning ones $1.4 million to $1.1 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. (Barber outspent Kelly, $800,000 to $711,000.) As shown by Barber's victory, the super-PAC attacks were far from decisive.
5. This victory could prove short-lived... or not
No doubt Kelly's loss stings, but he "doesn't even have time to grow a proper Al Gore beard of defeat," says Margaret Hartmann at New York. Barber only won six months in Washington, and both he and Kelly say they plan to fight for the seat again in November. Eh, Kelly's 0-and-2, and "it's up in the air whether Republicans will rally behind him" for a third shot at the seat," says Dan Shearer at The Suharita Sun. And whoever runs against Barber will do so in a redrawn district that includes more Democrats. Kelly's a nice guy, but pretty polarizing, and "the GOP might have to give another candidate a shot."