Barber vs. Kelly

Who will be the heavyweight in CD 8?

The crowd was smaller at Jesse Kelly's primary-election-night party at the Viscount Suite Hotel bar last week, but the outcome was the same as in 2010: Kelly outpaced his GOP rivals for a congressional seat and won the chance to advance to the general election.

Kelly captured 35 percent of the vote in the four-way race, while former Air Force fighter pilot Martha McSally won 25 percent; state Sen. Frank Antenori won 23 percent; and sports broadcaster Dave Sitton got 17 percent.

Kelly will face Democrat Ron Barber in the special election that was triggered when U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords resigned in January in order to focus on her recovery from a gunshot wound to the head during a shooting rampage that left six dead and 13 wounded on Jan. 8, 2011.

Barber, who had served as Giffords' district director, was among those wounded in the shootings. Now, at age 66 and with Giffords' encouragement, he has decided to make his first run for office.

The race sets up one of Giffords' closest confidantes against one of her fiercest rivals. Kelly lost to Giffords by roughly 4,000 votes in 2010, giving her the closest race of her congressional career. (Despite the fact that Republicans outnumber Democrats by roughly 6 percentage points in CD 8, Giffords had defeated each of her previous general-election opponents by more than 10 percentage points.)

Given that the special election will be held at an unusual time—on June 12, with early ballots going out in just three weeks—both candidates will have to make an extra effort to get the attention of voters in CD 8, which includes central Tucson, Marana, Oro Valley, SaddleBrooke, Green Valley, Sierra Vista and large parts of rural Southern Arizona.

The Arizona Republican Party has already spent more than $100,000 on the standard GOP attack campaign: a series of mailers and robocalls that link Barber to the Obama administration and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

On the day after the primary, a 30-second ad introducing Barber to voters went up on local television stations.

But that's just the tip of the spear. With a presidential election on the horizon, the CD 8 race has tremendous symbolic importance: If Democrats can hold a seat in GOP territory, it will help their narrative that Republicans have drifted too far to the right while in the grip of the Tea Party. If Republicans can win, they can claim that the wind remains at their back going into the fall election cycle.

That means that both parties—and, most likely, their various surrogates in the form of super PACs—will dedicate significant resources to the battle.

The GOP playbook appears to have Kelly talking about reducing taxes, regulations and gas prices, while surrogates carry out attacks linking Barber to President Barack Obama.

Meanwhile, the Barber campaign gave a preview of its strategy in a memo from campaign manager Jennifer Cox last week. It tracks the same campaign framework that Giffords used against Kelly last time: Kelly is too extreme for the district.

Cox pointed out many of the positions that Kelly has staked out since first hitting the campaign trail three years ago—cutting taxes for America's wealthiest citizens, eliminating Medicare so that older Americans have to purchase private health insurance, privatizing Social Security—and Cox also mentioned his general disregard for facts.

While he has tightened up his rhetoric during this campaign—he's no longer likely to describe seniors on Medicare as being "on the public dole," for example—Kelly still has a penchant for stretching the truth.

Kelly's loose talk has brought criticism even from his fellow Republicans. In the final weeks of the primary, fellow GOP candidate McSally took issue with Kelly's repeated assertion that the U.S. has more oil than Saudi Arabia.

"Jesse, we don't have more oil than Saudi Arabia," said McSally, who took a moment to explain that extracting oil from shale rock—the oil reserves that Kelly refers to when he claims that the U.S. has vast, untapped resources—is an expensive and largely untested process.

"We don't have those technologies yet," McSally said. "So maybe you should use your GI Bill to go back to college and get a geology degree, and you could help with that."