Democrat Ron Barber held a commanding lead over Republican Jesse Kelly in Tuesday's special election to complete the term of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
As of 10:15 p.m. on Tuesday night, the former Giffords aide led her former political nemesis by more than 13,500 votes (with 304 of 352 precincts fully reporting), with Barber getting 52.3 percent to Kelly's 45.1 percent. Kelly had conceded the race.
The mood at the Democrats' gathering at the Marriott University Park was festive as the first large batch of results came in, showing Barber with a comfortable lead.
When asked why Barber was winning, Jeff Rogers, the Pima County Democratic Party chairman, pointed to Jesse Kelly.
"I'd like to think it was our massive get-out-the-vote effort, but I looked at the numbers in this district, and demographically, it's the 11th-oldest in the nation, and I think it just sunk in that this guy Jesse Kelly meant what he was saying about Social Security and Medicare," Rogers said.
Barber entered the room a little before 10 p.m., flanked by Giffords and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly.
"We are incredibly excited that Ron will head to Washington next week to represent you," Kelly said.
Barber told the crowd that he had just received a concession phone call from Kelly, and that "a year ago, I never dreamt I would be standing here."
He gave special thanks to Giffords.
"Gabby is a friend, and she is an inspiration to all of us," Barber said as the crowd erupted in chants of, "Gabby! Gabby!"
"This was never Gabby's seat, and it is not my seat," Barber said. "This is your seat. This seat belongs to the people of Southern Arizona. Thank you for entrusting me with it. I will work every bit as hard as Mo Udall, Jim Kolbe and Gabby Giffords to earn that trust."
Former state lawmaker Pete Hershberger was one of a number of well-known Republicans who endorsed Barber over Kelly.
"The citizens of District 8 recognized that Ron was a practical guy who would work across party lines to get stuff done, and Kelly was an ideological bomb-thrower," he said.
Another Republican who supported Barber, Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik, was blunt about the quality—or lack thereof—of the GOP candidate.
"I think people saw Ron as a more-serious candidate," Kozachik said. "And Jesse was not fully baked."
At Kelly's election-night party at the Viscount Suite Hotel, Kelly headed into the main room around 9:30 p.m. He stood in front of supporters and conceded the race to Barber in a brief speech, thanking Jesus and his campaign volunteers for their hard work. He said that he would decide "tomorrow" whether to run for Congress yet again.
Congressional District 1 candidate Jonathan Paton—who was upset by Kelly in the Congressional District 8 primary two years ago—had showed up to offer Kelly his support.
"It's disappointing. ... Of course, I want Jesse to win. That's why I'm here tonight," Paton said.
The election was made necessary by Giffords' resignation in January 2012 so she could concentrate on her recovery from a gunshot wound to the head in a January 2011 shooting rampage that left six dead and 13 wounded.
Barber was among those wounded, although he downplayed that detail through most of the race. Instead, he concentrated his campaign on his experience, both in state government and in Giffords' office.
Barber's campaign, aided by national Democratic campaign committees, successfully portrayed Kelly as too extreme for the district—a tactic that was also employed by the Giffords campaign in 2010. Kelly lost that race by about 4,100 votes.
Giffords encouraged Barber to run, but she kept a low profile throughout most of the campaign. However, she arrived in Tucson on Saturday, June 9, for a get-out-the-vote concert and rally at the Rialto Theatre. She also visited with volunteers in the days leading up to the election, and voted on Tuesday morning.
While the dust has yet to settle in the CD 8 race, both candidates had already also been running in a new congressional district for the normal 2012 election cycle. While Republicans hold a voter-registration advantage of about 6 percentage points in the current Congressional District 8, both parties have about 34 percent of the voters in the new Congressional District 2, with independents making up most of the remainder of the voters.
Both Barber and Kelly have drawn primary challengers in the Congressional District 2 race.
Barber is set to face state lawmaker Matt Heinz in the Aug. 28 primary election. Heinz, who has been supporting Barber in the special election, said on Tuesday afternoon that he was waiting to see the results of the election before making any comments on the race for CD 2.
Kelly, should he stay in the CD 2 race, is set to face Martha McSally, 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 had said that she would drop out of the race if Kelly won, but she intended to stay in if he did not prevail against Barber.
"We'll be launching our campaign on Saturday," said Sam Stone, a spokesman for McSally. "We're looking forward to getting back out on the campaign trail, and after watching this race, we're confident that Martha is going to have a great opportunity to become our representative in November."
If a CD 2 primary between Kelly and McSally becomes a reality, it could be interesting, to say the least. Some people at Kelly's election-night gathering were speculating that McSally had a hand in Kelly's defeat by sabotaging his efforts in some Pinal and Cochise county precincts. One Kelly volunteer who asked not to be named groused: "The party is split apart right now."
Political newcomer Mark Koskiniemi has also filed to run on the GOP ticket in CD 2.