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Posted at 4:51 PM ET, 01/ 9/2011

Gabrielle Giffords' 2010 campaign was costly, close, and contentious

By Chris Cillizza and Paul Kane

Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) eked out a victory over Iraq war veteran Jesse Kelly (R) in a costly and contentious congressional campaign last November.

The race -- and particularly its tone -- has taken on newfound resonance in the wake of the Congresswoman being shot in the head at a constituent gathering on Saturday in Tucscon.

Giffords, who had faced few serious challenges in her rapid ascent from state legislature to House member, began the race as a heavy favorite after the little-known Kelly, who enjoyed the backing of national tea party groups, upset former state Sen. Jonathan Paton in the August 24 primary.

(The Fix wrote about the race in its early stages as part of our "choose your congressional district" feature.)

But, the difficult national environment for Democrats coupled with a surge in Republican energy instate -- the result of the passage of a stringent immigration bill -- quickly turned the race into a serious contest.

"Her numbers went steadily downward," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last year, recalled Sunday.

Kelly ran ads that labeled Giffords as part of the Washington crowd -- linking her stances on immigration and the economic stimulus package with similar positions held by President Obama and then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.).

(Kelly has drawn considerable criticism from the liberal left in the past 24 hours for an event he held allowing supporters to shoot an M16 with the candidate and pledging to "help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office".)

Giffords responded by hitting Kelly as a "risk we just can't afford" in ads -- highlighting his opposition to the Department of Education and desire to abolish Social Security and Medicare.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, which spent more than $40 million on ads in Democratic-held seats, never spent any money on the Giffords-Kelly race.

While the NRCC did not enter the contest, a host of conservative groups poured into the race in its final weeks. The 60 Plus Association, which supports privatizing Social Security, spent the most of any group, $350,000, trailed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce with $160,000 in spending.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee stayed out of the race until the final week, when they put $140,000 into the 8th district, funds that became available because the Democrats had given up on many of their other candidates.

In May, Van Hollen traveled with Giffords to New York for a fundraiser with some financial titans, and, while she spoke about favorite issues of hers such as solar energy and national security, she spent the bulk of her time discussing immigration and its role in her race.

"She did talk about how it was a very heated environment, particularly around immigration," Van Hollen said.

Giffords, who was widely discussed as a potential 2012 candidate against Sen. Jon Kyl (R), ultimately spent nearly $3.9 million on the race while Kelly dropped $1.6 million.

She eked out a victory by just 3,500 votes out of more than 273,000 cast -- winning 48.7 percent to Kelly's 47.4 percent. (Republicans defeated two other Arizona Democratic incumbents -- Harry Mitchell and Ann Kirkpatrick -- on Nov. 2.)

"She did not know if she won the race that night," Van Hollen said of the result. "She was very philosophical on it," he added, saying Giffords was ready to deal with victory or defeat feeling she had done all she could to win. "She was fairly reflective at that point."

By Chris Cillizza and Paul Kane  | January 9, 2011; 4:51 PM ET
Categories:  House  
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