Grand Finale

CD 8 musings: Ron Barber's win, Jesse Kelly's surrender and the Calexico bump

Now did Democrat Ron Barber beat Republican Jesse Kelly by 7 percentage points in a congressional district where Republicans have a 6-percentage-point voter-registration advantage?

There were a lot of factors at work, but in the end, the Barber campaign did a great job of painting Kelly as an extremist who was out of touch with the district. (It helped that Kelly adopted a lot of extreme positions.)

The Kelly campaign, aided by the National Republican Congressional Committee, tried to run a cookie-cutter anti-Obama campaign, but the issues they picked—cap and trade legislation?—just didn't resonate. (Complaining about skyrocketing gas prices while prices are decreasing doesn't establish a lot of credibility.)

A lot of people on Kelly's side say that Barber won thanks to a sympathy vote for Gabrielle Giffords, who stepped down from the seat to concentrate on her recovery from an assassination attempt that left six dead and 13 wounded. But there's little evidence to back that up. Barber, a former aide to Giffords who was also shot twice in the January 2011 rampage, rarely spoke about the shootings, and Giffords herself didn't come to town to campaign on his behalf until the final weekend of the race. If you look at the numbers, Barber had it wrapped up by then; his big lead came from early ballots, and Kelly actually got more votes than Barber at polling places.

Why did Jesse Kelly decide to drop out of the race for the new Congressional District 2?

A few days before the election, Kelly told MSNBC he was "absolutely" going to stay in the race for the new district, but Kelly had a habit of confidently delivering lines that weren't true.

Kelly has now gone 0-for-2 in the GOP-leaning Congressional District 8. His negatives are huge; even if Public Policy Polling's sample of the district was a bit off in the survey done right before the election, the numbers were grim: 59 percent of voters had an unfavorable view of Kelly, compared to the 37 percent who had a favorable view. Barber's numbers were nearly the reverse: 54 percent of surveyed voters had a favorable opinion of him, while 38 percent had an unfavorable opinion.

Part of that comes from the drubbing that Kelly took through the Democratic Party's TV ads, but part of it comes from his general approach to politics. He is a superficial candidate who can smoothly deliver talking points, but he can't discuss policy in any kind of depth. That's why he avoided interviews not only with the Tucson Weekly, but also with the morning daily and other news outlets. He ended up with a disastrous week on KGUN Channel 9 just as early voting was starting: The clip of Kelly repeating the same talking points about jobs and lower gas prices when asked about a controversial endorsement ended up getting national attention and more than 11,000 views on YouTube.

At any rate, Kelly might have been competitive in the CD 2 GOP primary, but as a general-election candidate, he had no path to victory. He would have struggled to raise funds, and there was no way, given finite resources, that the National Republican Congressional Committee was going to pour more money into a Kelly campaign this fall. The D.C. establishment supported Kelly twice, with nothing to show for it. There was not going to be a third time.

Will Barber now face Republican Martha McSally?

In all likelihood. Barber still has a primary challenge from state Rep. Matt Heinz, who is determined to stay in the race, but is unlikely to unseat a guy who just won an election. (Heinz tells the Weekly: "I'm definitely the underdog, but I'm looking forward to discussing important issues and the long-term future of Southern Arizona with the voters.")

Meanwhile, McSally launched her CD 2 campaign last Saturday, June 16. She's a former Air Force fighter pilot who made her political debut in the CD 8 special-election primary. She came in second to Kelly in that four-person race, winning 25 percent of the vote to Kelly's 35 percent.

McSally, who has to get past the little-known Mark Koskiniemi in the GOP primary, does not have the same amount of extremist baggage as Kelly does, but she's entering a district that's much more favorable to Democrats than the old CD 8. While Republicans hold a voter-registration advantage of about 6 percentage points in CD 8, both parties have about 34 percent of the voters in the new Congressional District 2, with independents making up most of the remainder.

Democratic sources are buoyed by the fact that in the areas of CD 8 that remain in the new CD 2, Barber won 53 percent to 44 percent. As for the new parts of CD 2, Obama won 67 percent of the vote in 2008, so it's not GOP-friendly territory.

McSally has some work to do with the GOP base; there were rumors in the final weeks of the election that she was undermining Kelly in the hopes of having a chance to run in the new district. Those rumors were given some legs by a Politico story this week that alleged that her campaign spokesman, Sam Stone, had given the Barber campaign some ideas about how to beat Kelly. (Stone has denied the rumors and wound up resigning from the campaign as a result; see this week's Skinny for details.)

What was Ron Barber's secret weapon?

In all the post-election analysis, one important factor has been overlooked: the Calexico bump.

OK, we're joking around a bit, but Calexico did concerts for Gabby in 2008 and 2010—and Giffords came out on top in both races. And the band's Joey Burns and Jacob Valenzuela performed with Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta at a get-out-the-vote rally and concert for Barber on Saturday, June 9.

On Election Night, Barber said he couldn't pinpoint how much of an impact the Calexico concert had on the final outcome.

"I don't know," Barber said. "I love Joey Burns, and I love Calexico. They may have given me a bump, but I love their music regardless. ... And you have to figure in Sergio Mendoza and all those guys. So who knows? That could have been the election right there."

Via text message, Democratic strategist Rodd McLeod put the Calexico bump at 2 percentage points.

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