It's the Southern Arizona rematch that has everyone talking: Can Democratic Congressman Ron Barber survive a second round with Republican challenger Martha McSally, a retired A-10 pilot who nearly beat him last time?
Washington political forecasters Stu Rothenberg and Charlie Cook both call the race a toss up. The Fix blog at the Washington Post calls Barber the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent in Congress. Polls that have been released by operatives on both sides show a close race.
The National Republican Congressional Committee started targeting Barber early, with everything from TV ads that claim he supported cuts to Medicare to a fake news site that paints Barber as unfriendly to women; the House Majority PAC and the DCCC have fired back at McSally with TV ads that say she wants to privatize Social Security and voucherize Medicare. (The claims in both sides' ads have been dinged by independent fact checkers.) Other groups have already weighed in; a right-leaning Latino group, the LIBRE Initiative, has run ads saying that Barber's policies are bad for the economy; Gabby Giffords, the former congresswoman who was once Barber's boss, recently weighed via her political group, Americans for Responsible Solutions, which produced ads critical of McSally for not supporting background checks at gun shows. More third-party players are expected in to arrive in the weeks to come.
Given the makeup of Southern Arizona's Congressional District 2, it's not surprising to see such a tight race. The district, which includes eastern Pima County and all of Cochise County, has a wide variety of constituents: Ranchers who are on the front line of the nation's ongoing immigration crisis. Seniors who fret about the future of Medicare and Social Security. Veterans who served the country and now worry whether the VA will take care of them. And families who are concerned about everything from overcrowded kindergarten classes to soaring tuition rates.
While Republicans have a slight voter registration edge, the district is about as competitive as they come: One third GOP, one third Democrat, one third independent. And it's winning over those independents that is key to capturing the seat.
If you were to listen to Team McSally, you'd believe Barber is a lifetime government bureaucrat who is too weak to lead and nothing more than a lapdog for President Barack Obama. If you were to listen to Team Barber, you'd believe that McSally is an anti-feminist Tea Partier with little regard for the middle class and nothing more than a lapdog for the Koch brothers.
The truth, while it's likely to be overshadowed by attack ads, is more nuanced in both cases.
Team Barber is highlighting Barber's deep roots in the community: His first campaign ad was narrated by his wife, Nancy, and focused on Barber's work in the Southern Arizona office of the Department of Developmental Disabilities for three decades years before he retired to help Gabby Giffords win her seat in Congress in 2006.
Barber served as Giffords' district director and was by her side on Jan. 8, 2011, when a crazed gunman opened fire at Congress on Your Corner. Barber was among the 19 who were shot, taking bullets to the face and the leg. He nearly died, but was trying to coordinate the office from his hospital bed the next day. He took six months off—during which he founded an anti-bullying, pro-mental-health-treatment organization called the Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding and organized a star-studded benefit concert that was headlined by Jackson Browne and Alice Cooper and included the likes of David Crosby, Graham Nash, Nils Lofgren and Tucson's own Calexico—and then was back on the job.
When Giffords announced that she was resigning in January 2012, Barber won the special election to replace her in June 2012.
McSally exploded on Southern Arizona's political scene in the early spring of 2012 when she jumped into the crowded GOP primary in the special election that followed Giffords' resignation.
Before she entered the race, McSally didn't have a presence in Southern Arizona politics. She grew up in Rhode Island and earned an undergraduate degree at the United State Air Force Academy and a master's degree at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. She ended up stationed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in between deployments in the Middle East and became the first woman to fly in combat as well as the first to command an A-10 squadron.
McSally made national headlines when she filed suit against the Pentagon over a policy that required female soldiers in Saudi Arabia to wear an abaya, a head-to-toe cloak. As the case made its way through the courts, McSally also joined a team that successfully lobbied Congress to pass a law preventing the Pentagon from requiring the Muslim garb.
McSally retired after 22 years in the military in 2010 and moved to Germany to teach at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. But after Giffords announced her retirement, she returned to Southern Arizona to launch a political career.
When McSally joined the race, the field already contained three well-known Republicans: conservative flamethrowers Jesse Kelly and Frank Antenori and the late Dave Sitton. When all the primary votes were counted, she came in second in the primary to Kelly, who would go on to lose to Barber. Following the special election, McSally was the only viable candidate to bother with a campaign in the regular election cycle.
And then, in a surprise on Election Night, McSally took a lead thanks to a strong showing in Cochise County. In the days that followed, the lead slipped back and forth, but Barber eventually pulled ahead; when the votes were finally counted, he'd won by roughly 2,500.
Given the close race, it was hardly a surprise that McSally is back for a rematch. This year, she's considered one of the GOP's top recruits and has outraised Barber in every reporting period in the last year.
McSally is presenting herself as a fundamentally different candidate than she was in 2012. In that campaign, she embraced a lot of Tea Party positions; at a debate in SaddleBrooke, she said there wasn't much difference in ideology between her and Kelly and Antenori. "When it comes to the issues ... we have very similar philosophies," McSally said, running down a list of topics from lower taxes to protecting the Second Amendment. "We are in agreement."
In her first campaign, McSally had a lot to learn. Asked by the Weekly a few days into her campaign if she supported Congressman Paul Ryan's budget proposal, she responded: "Who's Paul Ryan?" She explained that she wasn't familiar with congressional leadership because "I just arrived here 2 ½ weeks ago after quitting my job, and I'm looking for a place to live and running for Congress."
But McSally is quickly made friends in Washington. This year, both House Speaker John Boehner and his former second-in-command, Eric Cantor, have been to Arizona to raise money for McSally, who has proven herself to be a prodigious fundraiser. McSally has outraised Barber in every reporting period for the last year, although Team Barber points out that he still has more money to spend going into the general election.
For all her talk about leadership, however, McSally has been notoriously slippery on her positions. After launching her campaign last year, she said she couldn't take positions on pending legislation because she didn't have a staff that could explain the bills to her. She's dodged questions from national pundits—Stu Rothenberg said he "heard a lot of baloney" when he asked her about the 2013 government shutdown—as well as state-based media outlets such as the Arizona Republic, the Arizona Capitol Times and the Weekly. A KVOA News reporter tried to interview McSally after a July debate, but the candidate left before the cameras could find her.
McSally told the Weekly last year that most people didn't care about how she would vote on pending legislation. "The only people who are pushing me on this are the media," McSally said. "Not constituents. Not voters. Voters want to know what my philosophies are."
When she does take a stand on issues, it's often in areas where she appears to have reversed an earlier position.
Take education: Asked at a 2012 debate in Vail about what federal legislation she'd introduce to deal with soaring tuition costs, McSally delivered a Tea Party response: "As a conservative, the federal government needs to be doing less legislation, not more legislation, especially when it comes to these local issues. So I would propose no legislation to deal with these rising costs. Instead of having federal loans that keep piling up and raise the cost of tuition ... what we need to do is make sure that we have the best education in the world, we've got good competition between those colleges, and students get to pick, and they're able to compete for those dollars that they're spending on their college education, and get the federal government out of the way."
Based on those comments (as well as McSally's support for a 2012 GOP budget plan crafted by Paul Ryan that would have slashed funding for Pell Grants and other higher-ed support), Team Barber has charged that McSally's preferred policies would make life harder for families that are already struggling to afford college.
McSally says she made a "misstatement" at the 2012 debate and mistakenly offered a position that's the exact opposite of what she really wants to do with higher ed.
"I didn't explain my position very well there," McSally said. "The circumstances were, I was very focused on questions related to K-12. For higher education, I think we need Congress to be able to figure out how we can bring the cost of education down and make it affordable and available."
McSally charges that Barber voted to raise interest rates on student loans with his support of legislation that passed Congress on a rare 392-31 bipartisan vote. The new law tied tuition rates to the interest rate on Treasury Bills, which has allowed interest rates to increase, but it also prevented the rates from doubling.
The legislation was pushed through just as college loan rates were set to jump from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. The current rate is 4.6 percent.
Barber said he voted for the law, even though he'd like to see a different solution, because it was better than allowing the rate to double.
"I wasn't happy with the bill we passed, but it was better than having rates double, which would have happened had we done nothing," Barber said. "This was a bill that had significant bipartisan support. Many of us would have liked to have seen a different bill, but if you're a member of Congress, you come to realize very quickly that there's no bill that is perfect and you do what you can when a crisis is about to hit."
McSally said on the campaign trail a few weeks ago that she's "very passionate" about finding "thoughtful solutions" to making college more affordable and held a roundtable with various local education officials to discuss the issues. (The press was not allowed to observe the roundtable conversation to "encourage an open and engaging discussion," according to Team McSally.)
When it comes to K-12 education, McSally has also softened her stance from 2012, when she told KGUN-9 that she saw "no reason why we should keep having money be sent from here to Washington, DC to be sent back for education, so I think we need to go back to the federal government being minimally involved and this being a state and local driven and funded. Education should be more state and local driven and funded, and stop having to send our money to DC and get less of it back in order to actually fund the education."
Last month, McSally told the Weekly she now supports the federal funding for K-12 education, but wants to reduce federal red tape.
McSally's pattern of revising her previous positions repeats itself on other topics. In 2012, McSally told the Arizona Daily Star that she wanted "to look at gradually increasing the retirement age for younger workers and giving individuals more options to invest part of their benefits for higher returns" and told the Green Valley News that for younger workers, "we need to consider approaches such as gradually increasing the retirement age and allowing them to invest a portion of their Social Security payments in ways that will allow them to maximize their returns."
But Team McSally now insists that those comments did not suggest that McSally favored privatizing Social Security. McSally spokesman Patrick Ptak points to a Washington Post fact check that determined that a House Majority PAC TV ad earlier this year was worthy of three Pinocchios because it accused McSally of supporting privatization.
While the WaPo fact check agreed that the House Majority PAC took liberties with the truth in the ad, it observed that it was difficult to judge the claim because McSally's position was "so vague as to be almost opaque."
McSally's positions on Social Security have gotten no clearer in her latest campaign. Asked if there were specific policies that McSally supported regarding Social Security, Ptak said that she "understands this is simply a math issue and is willing to sit down with anybody—Republican or Democrat—to find bipartisan solutions to protect Social Security for current seniors and preserve it for her generation and the next."
Ptak said he couldn't explain what kind of policies McSally was talking about in 2012.
McSally has said that she has not changed positions on these and other issues. Instead, she has argued, the Barber campaign is taking her statements "out of context."
"What happens in politics, especially when a campaign is desperate, is they start taking sentences and things out of context and throwing it out there without putting it in full context," McSally said.
Team McSally not only rejects the idea that she has changed her positions on issues. McSally and her allies say that Barber has been slippery on health-care policy.
McSally told the Weekly last year that Barber should "sit down and talk to the people of Arizona about whether you're for or against Obamacare and what your other options are, instead of dancing on that line and being for and against it at the same time."
In particular, Team McSally points to Barber's positions on the Medicare Advantage program.
Medicare Advantage is a special type of Medicare insurance that contracts with private insurers to experiment with the delivery of healthcare services. The original intent was to see if the private sector could deliver better results for less money through the magic of the free market. As it turned out, seniors have loved the added benefits of Medicare Advantage, including health club memberships and other perks. But the program has not brought down costs; Medicare Advantage plans cost roughly 6 percent more than traditional Medicare, according to Kaiser Health News.
Part of the Affordable Care Act included cuts to Medicare Advantage that would have required insurance companies to bring their costs down if they wanted to remain in the program. But where Democrats saw a way to use the free market to rein in costs, Republicans saw an opportunity to hammer Democrats with charges they had cut a beloved Medicare program by hundreds of billions of dollars.
The subsequent attack-ad campaign by the GOP and its allies claiming that Democrats had cut Medicare by more than $700 billion over the next decade mostly got popped as a lie by fact-checking organizations, but new ads making the same claim are back on the air this year, courtesy of the NRCC.
Even with pressure from the Obama administration to rein in Medicare Advantage costs, participation in the program continues to grow. Congressional District 2 is home to more than 90,000 Medicaid Advantage clients.
Barber has shifted his own position on Medicaid Advantage. In 2012, he defended the cuts as a way of making sure insurance companies weren't profiting unfairly via taxpayer dollars.
But earlier this year, Barber called on the Obama administration to block cuts to Medicaid Advantage. In April, the White House announced it would actually pay out more to insurance companies via Medicare Advantage this year than last year.
Barber said the Medicare Advantage programs he's seen in the district have "outstanding outcomes," including programs that have helped seniors remain in their homes rather than enter assisted-living facilities for many of the enrollees.
"People are really happy with it," Barber said. "And I'm happy that we're judging programs on outcomes and rewarding them accordingly. Overpayments are a problem. We need to deal with it. We dealt with it in 2012 and I was in favor of it, and I would still be in favor of dealing with overpayment issues, but we now have a new way of measuring what we should pay and what we should reimburse."
As McSally has moved in to attack during the campaign, Barber has attempted to inoculate himself. McSally has said that Barber has been "asleep at the switch" when it comes to the future of the A-10 Warthog and, subsequently, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base; Barber has been at the forefront of legislation to keep the A-10 flying and has been critical of White House plans to retire the aircraft. In that argument, Barber has won the backing of leaders of the DM50, a group of citizens that work to keep Davis-Monthan open.
When Team McSally charges that Barber has not done enough to prevent the EPA from requiring stricter standards at Southern Arizona power plants, Barber responds with an endorsement from Geoff Oldfather, a spokesman for Arizona's G&T Cooperatives utility company who said he was supporting Barber because the congressman interceded on behalf of the Cochise County company when the EPA wanted to require new emission standards that would have cost the company millions of dollars. Oldfather said the utility is close to a solution that "is going to let us continue to operate. We are actually going to have emission levels that are better than what the EPA wanted and we have Congressman Barber in our corner to thank for the opportunity to get that solution going."
When McSally claims that Barber is a lapdog for the Obama administration, Barber points to national rankings that show he frequently votes against the Democratic caucus, particularly on topics related to the border or the Affordable Care Act. The National Journal noted last year that Barber voted with Democrats just 72 percent of the time; statistics compiled by OpenCongress.com showed that he voted with Democrats about 76 percent of the time.
Barber said that McSally is changing her positions from a Tea Party conservative to a moderate to win the election.
"We have been hearing about how many times she misspoke in 2012," Barber said. "On issue after issue, all of a sudden, she has a new way of thinking. I welcome some of the changes, because I think they are in the right direction, but I think it's more of a political game than it is reality."
But McSally argued that it is Barber who is being two-faced.
"He's the most vulnerable member of Congress right now," McSally said. "He has shown time and time again that he is willing to be just another Washington politician who says one thing here and does something there. And in their desperation, they're going to lash out with their national playbook and take things out of context and do what they can to save his job."