The crowd was smaller at Jesse Kelly's primary-election-night party at the Viscount Suite Hotel bar last week, but the outcome was the same as in 2010: Kelly outpaced his GOP rivals for a congressional seat and won the chance to advance to the general election.
Kelly captured 35 percent of the vote in the four-way race, while former Air Force fighter pilot Martha McSally won 25 percent; state Sen. Frank Antenori won 23 percent; and sports broadcaster Dave Sitton got 17 percent.
Kelly will face Democrat Ron Barber in the special election that was triggered when U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords resigned in January in order to focus on her recovery from a gunshot wound to the head during a shooting rampage that left six dead and 13 wounded on Jan. 8, 2011.
Barber, who had served as Giffords' district director, was among those wounded in the shootings. Now, at age 66 and with Giffords' encouragement, he has decided to make his first run for office.
The race sets up one of Giffords' closest confidantes against one of her fiercest rivals. Kelly lost to Giffords by roughly 4,000 votes in 2010, giving her the closest race of her congressional career. (Despite the fact that Republicans outnumber Democrats by roughly 6 percentage points in CD 8, Giffords had defeated each of her previous general-election opponents by more than 10 percentage points.)
Given that the special election will be held at an unusual time—on June 12, with early ballots going out in just three weeks—both candidates will have to make an extra effort to get the attention of voters in CD 8, which includes central Tucson, Marana, Oro Valley, SaddleBrooke, Green Valley, Sierra Vista and large parts of rural Southern Arizona.
The Arizona Republican Party has already spent more than $100,000 on the standard GOP attack campaign: a series of mailers and robocalls that link Barber to the Obama administration and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
On the day after the primary, a 30-second ad introducing Barber to voters went up on local television stations.
But that's just the tip of the spear. With a presidential election on the horizon, the CD 8 race has tremendous symbolic importance: If Democrats can hold a seat in GOP territory, it will help their narrative that Republicans have drifted too far to the right while in the grip of the Tea Party. If Republicans can win, they can claim that the wind remains at their back going into the fall election cycle.
That means that both parties—and, most likely, their various surrogates in the form of super PACs—will dedicate significant resources to the battle.
The GOP playbook appears to have Kelly talking about reducing taxes, regulations and gas prices, while surrogates carry out attacks linking Barber to President Barack Obama.
Meanwhile, the Barber campaign gave a preview of its strategy in a memo from campaign manager Jennifer Cox last week. It tracks the same campaign framework that Giffords used against Kelly last time: Kelly is too extreme for the district.
Cox pointed out many of the positions that Kelly has staked out since first hitting the campaign trail three years ago—cutting taxes for America's wealthiest citizens, eliminating Medicare so that older Americans have to purchase private health insurance, privatizing Social Security—and Cox also mentioned his general disregard for facts.
While he has tightened up his rhetoric during this campaign—he's no longer likely to describe seniors on Medicare as being "on the public dole," for example—Kelly still has a penchant for stretching the truth.
Kelly's loose talk has brought criticism even from his fellow Republicans. In the final weeks of the primary, fellow GOP candidate McSally took issue with Kelly's repeated assertion that the U.S. has more oil than Saudi Arabia.
"Jesse, we don't have more oil than Saudi Arabia," said McSally, who took a moment to explain that extracting oil from shale rock—the oil reserves that Kelly refers to when he claims that the U.S. has vast, untapped resources—is an expensive and largely untested process.
"We don't have those technologies yet," McSally said. "So maybe you should use your GI Bill to go back to college and get a geology degree, and you could help with that."
Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee who is now working to get Kelly elected, complained in 2010—when he was working for Jonathan Paton, Kelly's primary opponent—that Kelly's campaign "has had about as much accuracy and credibility on things as Countdown With Keith Olbermann."
Barber predicts that voters will see through Kelly's disregard for the truth.
"I really do believe that Southern Arizona voters are much more intelligent than that," Barber says. "They're not going to buy the sound bites; they're not going to buy the misinformation. They're not going to buy someone who is going to play fast and loose with the facts. I believe they want someone who is running for office who is going to tell them the truth and can be straight with them, and that's what I intend to do."
Barber knows a thing or two about the voters in Congressional District 8.
When Giffords was first elected to Congress in 2006, Barber headed up her transition team as she took over the office from Jim Kolbe, a Republican who was retiring after 22 years in office. After Giffords was sworn in, Barber became her district director and dedicated himself to keeping an eye on constituent needs in Southern Arizona.
Barber says he was determined to see the office deliver the best constituent service it could on behalf of Giffords.
"That was her priority," says Barber, who recruited many staffers who had backgrounds in social work.
The job of district director continued Barber's career in public service. Barber had spent more than three decades working for the state of Arizona, most of it running the Southern Arizona branch of the Division of Developmental Disabilities. Although he served as acting head of the entire division in the late 1980s, he was happy to relinquish control and return to Southern Arizona.
"I couldn't wait to get back to the regional directorship, where I could talk to a family that had a child with disabilities, or meet with a group of people with disabilities, or I could influence or help set up a new program," he says. "For me, that's where it's at."
Barber helped close two institutions and move people with mental disabilities into the community. He says his experience working for the state "taught me a lot about problem-solving and bringing people together to find solutions to let people with disabilities live productive lives in the community."
He met Giffords while she was still a state lawmaker. He was so impressed with her smarts that when she announced she was running for Congress, he quit his job with the state to help her campaign.
His work as CD 8's district director has helped Barber land the endorsement of some high-profile Republicans. Bob Walkup, the former Tucson mayor, is co-chairing the campaign (along with current Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, a Democrat).
"He understands the issues; he understands Washington; he understands the common good; and he's a real good guy," Walkup says. "He'll represent all of the people in the district, and I like that."
Other Republicans supporting Barber include Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik, former Sierra Vista Mayor Bob Strain, Cochise County rancher and veterinarian Gary Thrasher, and former Sahuarita Mayor Lynne Skelton.
Skelton says that Barber understands the district and "brings experience to the picture. He understands what's going to work and how to bring jobs to our area. And more than anything else, he's not a politician. ... Ron is a true public servant. He's about solving problems and building consensus, and he wants to get stuff done."
As district director, Barber was often by Giffords' side as she traveled throughout Southern Arizona. He was standing near her, talking with federal Judge John Roll, when the shooting broke out on Jan. 8, 2011.
Barber was shot twice. One bullet passed through a cheek and exited the back of his neck; the second hit him in the upper left thigh. His doctors said he was lucky not to lose his leg, although he suffered nerve damage and lost feeling—except for moments of severe pain—below the knee.
It would be six months before Barber could return to work, but he stayed busy during his recovery. Besides a vigorous rehab schedule, Barber formed the Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting programs for the mentally ill and anti-bullying efforts in schools. To raise money for the fund, Barber organized a star-studded rock 'n' roll benefit concert at the Tucson Convention Center just two months after the shooting that included Jackson Browne, Alice Cooper, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Nils Lofgren, Ozomatli and Calexico.
Despite all of his years in government, Barber says he never aspired to public office. But when Giffords and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, asked him to run in the special election to complete Giffords' term, he agreed to step up after discussing it with his wife, Nancy, and their children, as well as his doctors.
A few weeks later, after he had tested the campaign trail, he decided he would also seek the new Congressional District 2 seat later this year.
"I just felt more and more that I really wanted to do more than six months, and really tackle these problems," Barber says.
As the results began to come in following the primary election last week, Kelly stepped in front of the TV cameras and repeated his familiar talking points.
Kelly told reporters that "voters have responded to our plan to lower taxes. ... We need jobs right now. ... We need to lower the cost of energy. ... The message of lower taxes, more jobs and lower gas prices remains the same."
Since his loss in 2010, Kelly has become much more cautious about what he says in front of reporters. He rarely gives an interview that lasts more than a few minutes (unless he's talking to friendly reporters who won't challenge him), and he sticks to simple talking points.
Sometimes, he seems to mix them up. During a GOP debate last month, Kelly told high-school students that the "only way" to create high-skilled jobs was to cut taxes and regulations and "get the EPA out of the way and out of our lives."
Kelly has become so fond of talking points that during a recent appearance on Fox News' Hannity, he blamed looting by African-American kids at a Florida drug store "100 percent on Barack Obama. ... He's willing to stick his nose into anything these days to get the American people's minds off the fact that there's really 14 percent unemployment and gas at $4 a gallon when we have more oil than Saudi Arabia in this country.
"I think he will literally try anything to try to get the American people to stop thinking about that," Kelly continued, "and I can't wait until we actually get a president who loves this country in November."
Kelly's comments led fellow panelist Steven Crowder to marvel that Kelly "tied in every talking point he needed to right there."
But as well as Kelly delivers those talking points, he's demonstrated little ability to talk with any depth about the impact of his proposals. He no longer does one-on-one, face-to-face interviews, preferring to answer questions through brief emails.
Kelly's skittishness around the press is hardly surprising, given that his tendency to take unpopular positions in the last election ended up haunting him. He told the Tucson Weekly that he wanted to privatize Medicare in order to get seniors "off the dole" and that he would "love to eliminate Social Security." He has supported the elimination of the minimum wage and corporate taxes.
His other tax proposals have been all over the map. He frequently calls for a flat 10 percent tax on all Americans, because "if 10 percent was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for the federal government." At other times, he has supported Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan's proposal to have a 10 percent bracket for lower-income Americans and a 25 percent bracket for higher earners while introducing a national sales tax to help make up for the loss of income-tax revenue. At other times, he has proposed scrapping the income-tax system entirely, and introducing a 30 percent sales tax on goods.
At a debate last month, Kelly expressed outrage that Democrats would concern themselves with the impact of tax cuts on the federal budget. He exclaimed: "Our president says things like, 'They passed tax cuts that weren't paid for.' Paid for? It's their spending that isn't paid for!"
Despite the lack of depth, Kelly has come a long way since he started running for office less than three years ago. He's won two GOP congressional primaries by defeating two Republican state lawmakers with more political experience (Jonathan Paton and Frank Antenori), two Air Force pilots (Martha McSally and Brian Miller) and a businessman who has decades of experience as a local sportscaster (Dave Sitton).
And in 2010, he came within a few thousand votes of toppling Giffords. But his own radical conservatism, along with a strong campaign by Team Giffords, kept him from winning in a year in which Republicans triumphed from coast to coast.
Kelly had been planning to challenge Giffords once again, but the Jan. 8, 2011, shootings forced him to cancel any announcement. He tried his hand at talk radio for the first few months of 2011, but eventually moved to Texas with his family to manage a construction project there. He moved back to Tucson after Giffords' resignation in order to run in the special election.
Kelly, who grew up in Montana, does not have deep roots in Southern Arizona. He dropped out of Montana State University after his freshman year—he says he "absolutely hated it"—and signed up for the Marines. After spending four years in the service (including being part of the Iraq war), he left the Marines and moved to Tucson in 2004 to take a job with his father's company, Don Kelly Construction.
Kelly said he decided to run for Congress because he thought the country was "going radically the wrong way." While he has nothing good to say about Obama, he thinks the country got on the wrong track during the Bush administration. Kelly wants a dramatically smaller government—he proposes doing away with federal spending on education, including support for K-12 schools and college loans and grants, and scaling back environmental regulations. He would get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Education and the Department of Energy entirely.
Barber takes a more measured approach to managing the federal government.
"There are going to be plenty of places where Mr. Kelly and I disagree about what needs to be done," Barber says. "I hear all across the district about the concerns about the disappearing middle class. People are losing their jobs. If they're working, they're working at jobs where they're underemployed. Their jobs don't really match their skills. People are losing their homes. Their wages have been stagnant. And from what I've seen of what Mr. Kelly has said in the debates, he would favor policies that further push down middle-class Americans."
While Kelly has declined to say whether he would have voted for the Republican budget that passed the House last month (but stands no chance in the U.S. Senate), Barber says he would have opposed it, because it would "make devastating cuts to Medicare and would end Medicare as we know it by turning it into a voucher program. That would allow the healthiest seniors to leave the system and make it less solvent, because the government would be left with just sick and unhealthy adults. Mr. Kelly has said that he thinks Medicare is 'the dole,' and we ought to get Americans off it. From my point of view, Medicare is a solemn commitment that we've made. People have paid into it all their lives, and they expect it to be there when they retire."
He dismisses Kelly's repeated assertion that the United States has more oil than Saudi Arabia.
"We know that America has a lot of oil reserves, but they're far beyond our reach with the current technology," says Barber, who supports continued investment in renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal. "I'm going to base my energy policy on facts, not on misinformation."
Barber appears to be counting on voters to see through Kelly's act.
"I think there's going to be a difference not only in how we approach policy, but also how we approach voters," Barber says. "I'm not going to talk down to voters. I think voters want to hear factual information, and then they will make up their minds."