Prior to the November presidential election, there are only two instances this year where actual voters will cast ballots in elections that could provide a clue about the mood of the electorate. The first of these was the Wisconsin recall election, in which Republican Governor Scott Walker successfully withstood an attempt to oust him from office. The second is the race for the remainder of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords term which will be held on June 12.
In any individual race there are always factors other than the national mood that are relevant. Walker, for example, may have benefited by a reluctance of voters to oust an elected official for anything short of criminal offenses. Much about the Arizona Congressional race, however, suggests that it could be an excellent barometer of public sentiment on national issues. The district itself is regarded highly competitive. It was represented for over two decades by Jim Kolbe, a moderate Republican. When Kolbe retired, the seat was won by centrist Democrat Gabrielle Giffords. If this district were a state, it would be classified as a presidential tossup.
This race pits her former aide, Ron Barber against the Tea Party candidate, Jesse Kelly, who narrowly missed beating Giffords in 2010. Republicans have tried to nationalize the vote, linking Barber to "Obamacare" and linking Barber to President Obama and to Nancy Pelosi nationally funded ads including $600,000 funded by the National Republican Congressional Committee. Kelly will be aided by a moderate Republican plurality (25,716) that has grown slightly since the last election (it was 18,931 in 2010 when Giffords won by only 4,156 votes). Arguably Kelly might well have beaten Giffords in 2010 if the voter composition in 2010 was what it is in the current election. Including independent expenditures, he has also enjoyed a financial advantage. Barber may be aided by Gifford's endorsement and goodwill in the district for her since the January 2011 shooting. There is a certain balance to these factors. The winner's party will be able to claim a significant victory.
On the heels of Scott Walker's victory last Tuesday, a Kelly win would likely be seen as indicating a Republican tide. A Barber win would produce, in effect, a split decision, from which it would be difficult to impute much of a national trend.
The winner will serve only for the six months remaining in Giffords current term which ends in January. In November, a likely rematch will occur in a redrawn district that while still highly competitive, leans in a slightly more Democratic direction than does the current district. So a near simultaneous campaign is shaping up for that race. The participants in that election will be chosen in an August primary. But when that election takes place it will be simultaneous with 434 other Congressional races, 33 Senate races and a presidential race. The stakes seem much higher in this race for a six month term in Congress since there is no other game in town.