Kelly and outside GOP groups have connected Barber to Obama and Pelosi in virtually every ad and campaign appearance, reprising their most effective line from 2010. That line has caused Barber some discomfort in the campaign, especially in one debate where he briefly vacillated on whether he supported Obama for reelection. On the policy side, while touting lower taxes and fewer regulations, Republicans have used the national Democratic connection to hit Barber
for Medicare cuts in "Obamacare" and potential energy cost increases under a cap and trade system, two other critiques pulled straight from the successes of 2010.
Barber's campaign presented him as a moderate former businessman, by contrast, and while he has talked up those credentials on the air, outside Democratic groups and his campaign have hammered Kelly as a candidate out of the mainstream. The most memorable ad of the special came from Democratic-aligned House Majority PAC, which played clips
of Kelly saying the minimum wage should be eliminated and calling Social Security and Medicare a "Ponzi scheme," and, for the cherry on top, included video of Kelly saying, in 2010, that Giffords was not a "hometown hero" -- even though it was plucked from the 2010 campaign, before Giffords was shot, in the present context, nothing is further outside the mainstream.
Kelly has reinvented himself somewhat in the special election campaign, foregoing the strident tea party-infused rhetoric of 2010 and earlier positions on privatizing Social Security, among other things. But Democrats have mined Kelly's statements from the nasty 2010 campaign with Giffords and are using them all against him this year, another tactic Democrats think can be replicated against some other Republican incumbents and repeat candidates across the country in the fall.
In general, people tend to over-read the broader impact of special elections for House seats. A Democratic hold in the 8th District would not necessarily signal a renaissance for the party, nor would a GOP victory mean that Republicans would look likely to add seats in November. (For one thing, the redistricted version of the district gets more Democratic for the fall election.) But the district's makeup -- slightly Republican-leaning and senior-heavy, with a historical moderate streak -- makes it an interesting bellwether for the ongoing messaging war between the parties, especially on Social Security and Medicare.
Ultimately, the Giffords factor and the district's Republican lean give both parties reason to hope for victory, to rationalize defeat, and to not overreact too much about either result. A loss would not condemn either party's chances in November, though losing such a symbolic district would be an especially bitter defeat for Democrats. The great prize Tuesday, apart from the seat in Congress, is a large-scale test result of the parties' messaging. Whichever side emerges as the winner will have a better sense of what they have to do to appeal to the residents of other swing districts for the rest of the cycle.