Democrat Ron Barber, the former district director for ex-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, won the special election to replace his former boss as the representative from Arizona's 8th Congressional District.
The Associated Press called the race at 12:40 a.m. With a substantial number of early votes in and 66 percent of precincts reporting, Barber led repeat Republican nominee Jesse Kelly 53 percent to 45 percent.
Giffords loomed over the election, which was forced when she resigned from Congress in January to focus on her recovery from injuries suffered in a shooting a year earlier. She never appeared in Barber's campaign ads, surprising many, but she campaigned with Barber last weekend and personally recruited him to run for her seat after she resigned. She was in the background for much of the race, but Barber was closely identified with the popular ex-lawmaker in the Tucson-area district.
For the most part, the special election focused relentlessly on other issues, especially Social Security and Medicare, which both sides hope to repurpose in other districts nationwide for the fall campaign. Republicans connected Barber to national Democrats and health care reform, attempting to pin the Medicare cuts in the reform law to Barber as they did to so many candidates in 2010. Nearly all of the GOP's television ads mentioned President Obama or House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Democrats countered with one of their tested strategies, saying Kelly, a tea party favorite, was too extreme for the district. Barber and Democratic outside groups dug up comments Kelly had made about Social Security and Medicare during the 2010 campaign, and they linked him with the national GOP's plan to change the structure of the health care program.
Barber will fill the remainder of Giffords's term in the current Congress and had already announced he would seek the Democratic nomination for the redistricted, renamed 2nd District later this year. Democratic state Rep. Matt Heinz is also running, but he will have difficulty overtaking Barber after the emotional special election triumph. Barber would likely have an easier time in the November general election, too: The new 2nd District is slightly more Democratic than the current iteration of the seat.
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