Earlier versions of this story incorrectly said that Schuyler Lininger, the Republican candidate in the 1987 race for Tucson mayor, was an incumbent. The mayor at the time, Republican Lewis C. Murphy, chose not to run. This version has been corrected.
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Giffords's border district symbolizes the heat of Arizona politics
"Half of the arrests for illegal immigration between California and Texas are made in District 8, Gabby's district," said Michael McNulty, a Tucson lawyer who has chaired Giffords's campaigns since she first ran for the state legislature. "That had everyone on edge."
But some residents here said they have not felt the same urgency from their elected officials in Washington, who are too distant to see the impact that illegal immigration has on local crime rates, joblessness and overstretched public services.
"A lot of us are mad at Washington," said Julius "Mac" Maklary, 73, as he watched a football game Saturday in a smoke-filled American Legion lodge. He said he voted for Giffords but is still not satisfied with government. "Everybody got reelected, but what are they doing now? We've still got the same problems. We still have all these drug problems and illegal immigrants coming across," he said.
As she campaigned for reelection, Giffords knew immigration would be a huge constituent issue, her aides say. She emphasized border security but came under heated criticism for not backing a state effort to more aggressively identify and deport illegal immigrants.
But her top aides said they were taken aback when gun rhetoric escalated during the campaign.
"There was a lot of hostility and gun talk," said Rodd McLeod, Giffords's campaign manager. "And when you are campaigning, you are publicly advertising where you are going to be."
In August 2009, as the health-care debate ratcheted up, a protester brought a gun to one of Giffords's "Congress on Your Corner" events at a supermarket in Douglas. The man reportedly shouted disparaging words at Giffords and drew the attention of police after he dropped his firearm.
After Jesse Kelly won the Republican primary in the 8th District, the tea party-backed candidate held a gun-shooting fundraiser. An ad promoting the event said: "Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly."
Kelly declined interview requests.
Giffords was not the only Arizona Democrat in Congress who felt threatened during the past year. In April, Rep. Raul M. Grijalva and his staff received multiple death threats and felt forced to temporarily shut his district offices in Tucson and the border town of Yuma. At that time, Giffords tried to appeal to Arizonans, saying, "Such acts only make it more difficult for us to resolve our differences. . . . Resorting to vandalism and threats to express political viewpoints is unacceptable."
Winning the district was a top priority for both parties, and in the campaign's final weeks, the sheer volume of anti-Giffords campaigning was inescapable, residents said.
Street signs saying "Giffords FORCED Obamacare on YOU" popped up at major intersections. Talk radio personality Garret Lewis devoted his three-hour show each day to Giffords, calling her a "puppet" of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and accusing the Arizonan of "masquerading as a border conservative." At debates, angry spectators booed and shouted over Giffords and Kelly so loudly that the candidates sometimes could not be heard.
Thomas J. Volgy, a former Tucson mayor who teaches political science at the University of Arizona, said state politics was radically different when he was running for office two decades ago. During his 1987 mayoral race, Volgy, a Democrat, was expected to lose to Republican Schuyler Lininger. But things shifted in Volgy's favor after the state's GOP leadership denounced him for being a naturalized citizen.
It backfired. Volgy went from being down five percentage points to winning by between eight and nine points.
"Being negative and personal didn't work. People didn't like it," Volgy said. "Now we are in an era where people do nothing but denounce public officials for being scum and slime. It's hard for some people to differentiate between the good guys and the bad guys."
firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com Kindy reported from Washington and Rucker from Douglas, Ariz. Staff writer Sari Horwitz in Tucson and research editor Alice Crities in Washington contributed to this report.