Prior to the attempted assassination attempt by Jared Loughner in January, Giffords had been planning to run for statewide office if Sen. Jon Kyl (R) decided to retire in 2012, according to aides who spoke to the Fix on the condition of anonymity in the immediate aftermath of Kyl’s retirement announcement in February.
That fact led to a freezing of the Democratic Senate field as it became clear that the Giffords team wanted to preserve the possibility of her running statewide — depending on the pace of her recovery.
Now, four months later, there are still no announced Democratic candidates in the race even as Rep. Jeff Flake (R) looks to be the odds-on Republican nominee.
So, what does Giffords’ political future look like?
There are three options before Giffords: leave politics entirely, run for re-election to her southern Arizona 8th district or pursue the Senate race.
“Gabby is still 100 percent focused on her recovery,” said one strategist close to Giffords granted anonymity due to the delicacy of political discussions surrounding the Arizona Democrat. “A decision on 2012 will most likely come in 2012.”
The source added that he was “optimistic that she will be able to return to work and run again in 2012, but the truth is no one knows for certain what the future holds.”
That would seem to indicate that Giffords may decide to seek re-election to the House rather than run for the Senate. If so, she has until May 2012 to file her paperwork to seek a fourth term in the House — a race she would almost certainly win easily. Jesse Kelly, a Republican who nearly defeated Giffords in 2010, has filed to run again but has not campaigned actively since the shooting.
The source cautioned, however, that none of the options mentioned above have been ruled out (or in) and the decision about her political future remains very much up to Giffords.
Amid the uncertainty about Giffords’ next steps, national Democrats are actively recruiting potential Senate candidates — although they were loathe to share the names of anyone publicly.
“Although it remains very early, we’re confident that a strong candidate will enter the race,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee communications director Matt Canter.
Democratic strategists insist that the state remains one of their prime pickup opportunities in 2012 even if Giffords doesn’t run, arguing that Flake’s appeal is limited and that the state’s large Latino population — particularly in a presidential year — make for a very winnable race.
But, the party’s roster of up-and-coming politicians in the state is relatively thin and Democrats haven’t won a Senate race in Arizona since Dennis DeConcini in 1988. Voter registration also favors Republicans; as of April 1, there were 1.14 million registered Republicans, 1 million registered Democrats and 1.03 million people registered as unaffiliated with any major or minor party in the state.
“All of our hopes and faith were geared towards her,” Andrei Cherny, chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party, told the Associated Press earlier this week. “Because of what happened in Tucson, I think people are now thinking through the decision themselves.”
Several Democrats mentioned as possible candidates including former governor Janet Napolitano and former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick have removed themselves from consideration.
And, there remains skepticism among some Democrats about the party’s Senate prospects if Giffords doesn’t run, however.
“There is no way they can win that race without her,” said one Democratic operative with extensive experience in the state. “The bench is too shallow and the voter registration hill is too steep.”