Elaine S. Povich is a GOVERNING contributor.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
When House Speaker John Boehner planted a peck on the cheek of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords as she handed in her resignation letter, it marked possibly the last nice thing a Republican will do for a Democrat (or vice versa) for the rest of the year in the hotly-contested race to succeed Giffords.
Emotion over Giffords aside, Republicans see a good chance to restore the seat to the GOP, where it was before Giffords was elected in 2006. The first declared candidates for her seat has emerged from the ranks of the state legislature.
Republican state Sen. Frank Antenori became the first to officially announce his candidacy for Gifford’s seat during an event at the Republican Club in Green Valley Jan. 27.
"In this special election, you need someone that has the ability to hit the ground running and move fast and assume the role of leadership," said Antenori, who serves as the state majority whip. "I'm going to run on my record and I'm going to stand by it and I think my record is solid. It's what we need in Washington."
Antenori was elected to the Arizona state House in 2008, then appointed to the state Senate in March 2010. Republican Jesse Kelly who ran and lost against Giffords in 2010, also said he would seek the House seat. He has filed with the Federal Election Commission and it is reported that an official announcement may come next week.
And Matt Heinz, an openly gay two-term state representative from Tuscon, last week became the first Democrat to announce he will run for Giffords' seat. In his annoucement, Heinz stressed his moderate stances and compared them to Giffords' -- saying he too could work with Republicans.
Democrats are hoping to hold the seat and to build off Giffords’ popularity following the devastating shooting last year which forced her to resign to concentrate on her recovery. Both parties are planning to pour money and other resources into the Arizona election, which will foreshadow the presidential contest later this year.
Even Boehner said in an interview that the district is good territory for Republicans -- but he also noted it is very competitive.
Former Tucson Mayor Thomas Volgy, now a professor of government and public policy at the University of Arizona, said Giffords’ endorsement in the race, should she make one, is crucial to the special election.
“The special – that’s going to be a slam dunk,” Volgy said. “If she endorses, that person probably will have a good chance.”
But the general election in November will be more of a reflection of national politics Volgy said – the President Obama vs. the House Republicans in Congress. And it is complicated by the fact that Arizona could be in play for both parties in the presidential race.
“There will be so much activity on the presidential level that individual congressional races are going to be secondary,” Volgy said. “And so much will be decided by how people vote in the president election.”
The 8th congressional district has been represented by Democrat Giffords in Congress for the past five years, but has voted for Republicans in the presidential contests over the same time period. Prior to Giffords, a moderate who stressed border security and defense issues, the seat was held by a rather moderate Republican, Rep. Jim Kolbe, for 22 years, before he retired in 2006. Kolbe attracted many Democratic votes.
The time pressure of the contests also adds to their frenzy. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer will set a special primary election to take place likely in April, followed by a general election probably in June to fill Giffords’ seat – but just until November. Then, the regular election will take place. While whoever wins the special will have a leg-up in the November contest, nothing is certain.
And in an unusual wrinkle, redistricting means that the 8th district will look somewhat different in November than it does in June. Experts say the special election district is slightly more Republican; the new district is slightly more Democratic.
Throw into the mix the emotion surrounding Giffords’ severe wounding at the hands of a gunman, and her remarkable recovery, along with the scads of money that will pour into Arizona as the special race becomes a surrogate for both parties hopes in November, and it’s a political stew worthy of a bare-knuckle combat type of race.
“We’ve always thought of that district as being very competitive, with maybe a Republican tinge,” said Stu Rothenberg, of the Rothenberg Political Report, which specializes in congressional races. “Giffords barely held on with a lower tier challenger last time.”
That challenger was a Tea Party Republican Jesse Kelly, whom Giffords beat by only 1 percent in 2010. Kelly is poised to jump into the new race now. He had vowed a rematch with Giffords, but suspended his efforts after Giffords was injured.
There are other Republicans who may get into the race, and Kelly does not get much respect from Kolbe this time around, because he says border security is better and the immigration issue has lost some of its clout.
“He [Kelly] would assure that a Democrat would win the seat,” Kolbe said flatly. “He’s out of touch with the district. It’s a very moderate district. We are close to the border and we have a different outlook than Phoenix. If there was a time when a Republican should have won it it was 2010, and we couldn’t win the race with that candidate then, I don’t know how anybody thinks we will win with that candidate now.”
Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, alluded to Giffords’ moderate stances when discussing the upcoming contest.
“We look forward to working with a Democratic candidate who fits this district and shares those values that Gabrielle holds dear to carry on her work,” he said in a statement shortly after Giffords resigned. Experts say the closer the Democratic candidate is to Giffords, the better.
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