Sources close to Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords have repeatedly refused to speculate about her political future, telling reporters that her recovery remains a work in progress and that she will ultimately make a decision in 2012.
But now rumors are circulating that Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, might be a candidate for elected office himself in the not-too-distant future.
Kelly himself hinted at future political ambitions in his statement announcing his retirement from NASA last week; “After some time off, I will look at new opportunities,” he said.
Giffords’ supporters say there is interest in a Kelly candidacy among Arizona Democrats. Many worry that the congresswoman will not be able to run a campaign next year, but believe her husband has name recognition and fundraising ability no other candidate — Democrat or Republican — could match.
There’s a long tradition of familial succession in Congress, although in the past, it’s usually wives who follow their husbands. Of the 275 women who have served in Congress, 46 took the seat held by their late spouses.
While the idea of a Kelly run is fraught with a plethora of delicate questions, there is one that stands above the rest: Is he even eligible to run for office in Arizona?
The answer: It depends on what office he would seek.
The requirements for federal office are pretty simple. Kelly would simply have to reside in the county, district or precinct that the candidate proposes to represent at the time of filing for the office he or she is seeking.
If Kelly wanted to run for state legislature, on the other hand, he would need to prove Arizona residency for the past three years. Kelly and Giffords are currently living near Houston, Texas, where the congresswoman is going through rehabilitation therapy.
The state law reads: "No person shall be a member of the Legislature unless he shall be a citizen of the United States at the time of his election, nor unless he shall be at least twenty-five years of age, and shall have been a resident of Arizona at least three years and of the county from which he is elected at least one year before his election.”
Most of the discussion about Kelly is focused on federal, not state office. There are a few paths the former astronaut could take.
First, Kelly could run for Giffords’ 8th district House seat. That seat could change under redistricting — an independent commission draws the lines, so anything could happen. But the commission did not do much to hurt incumbents last time around, so Giffords has a good chance of keeping her district relatively intact.
That district is very competitive, with Giffords winning reelection by less than one percent in 2010. But the couple’s inspiring story, along with Kelly’s non-political background, could only help in 2012.
If Kelly was elected - with Gabby Giffords’ blessing, of course - and proved himself and able and charimsatic House member, he could even be considered a plausible statewide candidate in 2016 when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) will be 80-years-old and there’s a strong chance he will retire. If McCain did so, it will likely be a very competitive Senate race.
If McCain stays on, it could still be a real race. The 2008 GOP presidential nominee won with 59 percent of the vote in 2010, but his opponent was the little-known vice-mayor of Tucson. Arizona has an increasing Hispanic voting population and has trended more Democratic in recent years (with some exceptions — for example, the 2010 gubernatorial race).
The other option is for Kelly to run for Senate in 2012 for the seat being vacated by Sen. Jon Kyl (R). Giffords was considered the favorite in that open-seat contest before the shooting that put her in the hospital for five months; in her absence, no new contender has stepped up. “All of our hopes and faith were geared towards her,” said Arizona Democratic Party Chairman Andrei Cherny recently.
But Democratic insiders say there’s no sign beyond wishful thinking that Kelly is interested in a 2012 Senate campaign. That race would be more difficult for a political neophyte. The likely GOP nominee is well-known Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who announced his candidacy back in February and has been fundraising ever since. As of April, he had $1.5 million on hand.
Other potential 2012 Senate candidates have begun to step forward. Former state party chairman Don Bivens, now a lawyer in private practice, is interested. Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.) has said he’s thinking of getting in, although he has a House seat that will likely stay safe after redistricting. Defense contractor David Crowe has formed an exploratory committee. Cherny himself is quietly considering a bid.
Bivens gave himself until Labor Day to decide. Democrats say that given the low name recognition among the candidates in the field, no one but Giffords or Kelly could afford to wait much longer.
“By end of summer, early fall, we expect top-tier races to really take shape,” said Arizona Democratic Party Communications Director Jennifer Johnson. “We expect to have strong Democrats in the game.”