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What the Gabby Giffords special election means — and what it doesn’t

at 06:30 AM ET, 06/12/2012

Tuesday’s special election for the seat of former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) rehashes the time-honored Washington tradition of taking a special election in one of the 435 congressional districts and trying to draw broad conclusions based upon the results.

And as always, it’s a tricky and fraught exercise.
Democrat Ron Barber, left, and Republican Jesse Kelly laugh over a microphone malfunction during the opening remarks of their debate at the Tucson Jewish Community Center last month. (AP Photo/Kelly Presnell/Arizona Daily Star)

So before the results come in and before we’ve got a chance to analyze (and over-analyze) them, we thought it worthwhile to review what the race does — and doesn’t — mean.

WHAT IT DOES MEAN

Special elections, more than anything, are a great trial run for a party’s November messaging. By focusing resources and attention on one district, it’s easier to see how a given strategy can move numbers.

In Giffords’s Tucson-based district, the strategy for Democrats has been pretty consistent: tarring GOP nominee Jesse Kelly with his past statements suggesting the overhaul (and even elimination) or Social Security and Medicare. These statements mostly came during the 2010 campaign, when Kelly was the conservative tea party alternative in the Republican primary to face Giffords.

And it seems to have worked. A new poll out Monday showed Democrat Ron Barber asserting a double-digit lead, and some Republicans are already predicting defeat.

If Democrats do win Tuesday, it’s going to be in large part because they defined Kelly early and successfully as being anti-Medicare and anti-Social Security in the 11th-oldest district in the country — in large part by running footage and quotes of Kelly himself talking about getting rid of the entitlements.

Given the age of the district and Kelly’s past comments, the special election was almost a perfect test case for the Democrats’ strategy. But that also means the stars may not align so perfectly in most other districts. Still, basically every GOP incumbent has voted for a Republican budget that overhauls Medicare, turning it into a voucher program, so this is a strategy that has some legs.

“Democrats will go straight to it in the fall, and it will be effective as it always has,” said one GOP strategist close to the race, adding: “Jesse Kelly was just too flawed.”

On the GOP side, the messaging has been all about tying Barber to his national party, including President Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and Obama’s health care law. And Barber has, to his credit and just as his old boss did, created some separation.

If Republicans somehow win, the GOP can make a valid argument that it was because the Democratic brand and struggling economy weighed Barber down — albeit in a district that leans towards the GOP.

But it doesn’t appear that’s the case.

“Barber knew he had to (distance himself from Obama), and it worked,” said the strategist. “There will be lots like this in the fall.”

What’s funny about these strategies is that they are basically the same strategies that either side used in the 2011 special elections, when Democrats pulled an upset in upstate New York and then Republicans pulled an upset in New York City. The difference, it seems, has been how well they applied to either district, and how the candidates themselves were able to manage them.

WHAT IT DOESN’T MEAN

This is not a preview of the 2012 battle for control of the House.

A Democratic win doesn’t mean that party is primed to re-take the House, and a GOP win doesn’t mean that the Republican majority is totally safe. One race — and a quite unique one at that — does not demonstrate national momentum.

In fact, it seems quite possible that Democrats may hold on to a conservative-leaning congressional district in Arizona just one week after they suffered an embarrassing loss in the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election — which took place in a state they have won in every presidential election since 1984.

If that doesn’t indicate the lack of broader implications, we don’t know what does.

The race started under the most unusual of circumstances — the assassination attempt that Giffords survived and Barber was injured in — and it’s also a highly unusual election, in which most ballots were cast before Tuesday.

Kelly was a repeat candidate who ran as a tea party favorite in 2010 and had to come to the middle in 2012. He was also, we should note, one of very few Republicans who didn’t emerge victorious in 2010 in districts that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) carried in 2008, which says something about his campaign skills.

That also means this district isn’t a majority-maker for Democrats. In other words, their path back to control goes through friendlier territory than a district that went 52 percent for McCain.

All of that said, a victory for Democrats would certainly be an encouraging sign for their side.

Obama ad targets Romney’s Mass. record: The Obama campaign is continuing its push to define Mitt Romney by his record as governor of Massachusetts, launching a new ad Tuesday focusing on the state’s debt and job creation under Romney.

The ad notes that Massachusetts ranked first in debt per person under Romney and 47th in job creation.

“First in debt; 47th in job creation,” the narrator says. “That’s Romney economics.”

The ad is running in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Fixbits:

Romney embarks on a five-day bus tour through swing states — and Michigan.

Federal candidates can now receive donations via text message.

Rick Santorum offers some mixed feelings about Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) as a potential vice president.

Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna (R) outraises former congressman Jay Inslee (D) two-to-one in May.

A new Siena Research poll shows Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) leading Rep. Bob Turner (R-N.Y.) 63 percent to 25 percent.

Some New York City heavyweights call New York City Councilman Charles Barron an “anti-Semite” and a “bigot.” Barron is running agianst state Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries for retiring Rep. Ed Towns’s (D-N.Y.) seat.

Congress starts negotiating to avoid taxmageddon.

Must-reads:

Potential VPs Are Powerful Fundraisers” — Rebecca Kaplan, National Journal

Angus King makes a last stand for moderation in Maine Senate race” — Ed O’Keefe, Washington Post

We can’t have a scandal without the -gate” — Monica Hesse, Washington Post

Romney aide oversees fundraising that makes him cash, too” — Lisa Lerer, Bloomberg Businessweek

 
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