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Raising Arizona: Gabrielle Giffords and the race for the 8th district

Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. AP photo

Recently we asked Fixistas to vote on the House race they wanted to see get more coverage in this space. Arizona's 8th district won. Below you'll find our first entry in the "choose your own House race" competition. Look for a chance to choose the next race we cover later this week.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) and former state Sen. Jonathan Paton (R) have known one another for almost half of their lives. They even dated -- briefly.

But, their relationship now is less cordial as Paton, a fast riser just six years removed from his first election (to the state House) prepares to challenge the two-term Democratic incumbent in the southeastern Arizona 8th district.

Paton had been recruited to run against Giffords in 2008 but passed, a decision that he explains was based heavily on the tough national political climate for Republicans. "We could have had Ronald Reagan himself running in 2006 and 2008," said Paton. "Republicans were just not going to win."

Fast forward two years. With Republicans now ascendant politically (or, at the very least, Democrats descending) and Giffords' votes in favor of President Barack Obama's health care bill, cap and trade legislation and the $787 economic stimulus package, Paton sensed opportunity and leapt at it.

(Paton still seems somewhat conflicted about Washington. "Washington isn't the most fun place in the world," he told the Fix during a recent interview.)

Like many establishment favorites this cycle,however, Paton is faced with a primary challenge from his ideological right in the form of Iraq war veteran Jesse Kelly.

Kelly, who has been in the race for months and reported a less-than-stellar $179,000 cash on hand at the end of 2009, proudly embraces his position to Paton's right insisting: "We are absolutely the Tea Party candidate." He added that he has endorsements from several Tea Party favorites including Reps. Mike Pence (Ind.) and Trent Franks (Ariz.).

Kelly, who is just 28 years old, lumps Paton into the same category as Giffords -- career politicians primarily interested in their own advancement. "People are tired of politicians, they want somebody new," said Kelly. He adds that Paton's vote while in the state legislature for former Gov. Janet Napolitano's (D) "out of control budgets" will be a major issue in the Aug. 24 primary.

Paton remains the favorite in that race, however, thanks to an electoral base -- he has won three elections in districts (House and Senate) in the most Republican-friendly parts of the 8th -- and a likely fundraising edge over Kelly. (Paton has yet to report his fundraising totals with the Federal Election Commission but will do so at the close of this month.)

Assuming he makes it to the general election, Paton will have just 69 days to prosecute a campaign against Giffords who, although she sits in a swing district, has shown little sign of vulnerability in her first two races.

Following the retirement of longtime Rep. Jim Kolbe (R) in 2006, Giffords cruised to a 54 percent primary victory (in a six-way race) and then benefited from a bit of luck in the general election when former state Rep. Randy Graf, who was about five ticks too conservative for the district, won a contested primary. National Republicans walked away from the race as soon as Graf won and Giffords cruised to a 54 percent victory in the fall.

Two years later, Republicans heavily targeted Giffords and recruited state Senate President Tim Bee, who, in the small world category, went to high school with both Giffords and Paton.

Giffords outspent Bee by $800,000 -- she raised and spent $2.8 million -- and took advantage of a terrific national atmosphere in which to run as a Democrat to win by a whopping 12 points.

But, despite those easy victories, Giffords knows she sits in a swing district -- native son John McCain carried it with 52 percent in 2008 and George W. Bush won it with 53 percent in 2004 -- and that the current political mood isn't helping things.

"There is so much unhappiness," she said. "There is a tremendous amount of fear about the economy and health care." Giffords added that now is "not an ideal time to be overhauling health care" but quickly noted: "But, we have to do it."

Giffords is building two bulwarks to avoid being washed out electorally if a Republican wave does crash across the country this fall: fundraising and constituent service.

At the end of 2009, Giffords had a whopping $1.6 million in the bank. It's easy to imagine that by the time Paton or Kelly emerge as the Republican nominee, Giffords could well have a $2 million (or more) financial edge on either one.

Giffords also proudly touts the frenetic pace at which she approaches constituent service for the district -- pointing out that her office has opened 2,739 constituent cases and closed 2,528, nearly triple the pace of the average Congressional office.

Giffords makes a point of flying back to the district every weekend in spite of the fact that here is not a single direct flight from Washington to Tuscson. (Last weekend Giffords was in district with Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.)

That level of activity is in support of Giffords' approach to elections, which, she believes, are about "how well people know you and what they think of you and what you do for them."

Giffords has never had to run in a year like 2010 though and she will have to find ways to distance herself from national figures like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) who is something short of popular in the district.

Giffords will also have to defend votes on controversial proposals like health care in a race that Paton seems certain to try to nationalize. Paton insisted that Giffords' voting record in the 111th Congress has changed everything with voters coming up to him regularly and saying that "this is not what we bought into when we originally supported [her] campaign."

For her part, Giffords insisted that she is right where she wants to be -- noting that National Journal recently ranked her voting record as one of the most centrist in the Congress -- and that she knows who she is and what she needs to do to win.

"My job is to calm people and to inspire people," said Giffords.

By Chris Cillizza  |  March 15, 2010; 12:09 PM ET
Categories:  House  
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Next: The Boxer blimp, the Demon Sheep and Fred Davis


This is good Chris. 2 of these per day, and we can cover the entire country by election day. Might I Recomend the Indiana 9th next?

Posted by: elijah24 | March 16, 2010 10:00 AM | Report abuse

But in all such Cases the Votes of both Houses shall be determined by Yeas and Nays, and the Names of the Persons voting for and against the Bill shall be entered on the Journal of each House respectively


How hard is that ????


Posted by: 37thand0street | March 16, 2010 2:03 AM | Report abuse

The House Budget Committee posted the bill - it is 2300 pages long !!!!

What are they - insane ???

That makes the health care bill a total of 5000 pages.

NOW - they say, they will gut out the 2300 pages - but who are they trying to kid.

With 5000 pages - who is even pretending there is transparency - the Constitution is 11 pages long - why do we need thousands of pages if they aren't trying to hide things and slip things in ?


Posted by: 37thand0street | March 16, 2010 1:50 AM | Report abuse


Why should you be telling the Washington Post what to print ??


I think the Obama people got so used to the press fawning over them, that they forgot what the press is supposed to be like: critical.

Obama is the worse President since Hoover, and perhaps Buchanan - definitely worse than Jimmy Carter.

There is an economic crisis going on - which Obama is ignoring - in favor of some ego trip - it really is the sickest thing ever - the sickest thing a President has ever done in American history.

All the democrats who voted for Obama - it's your fault - take some personal responsibility and say clearly that is was really stupid to vote for someone with such little experience - and who had such little track-record that no one knew he was going to swing all the way to the left.


You were lucky to be born in America - and look how you have treated the country in return.



Posted by: 37thand0street | March 16, 2010 1:13 AM | Report abuse

I would have to agree that Gabrielle Giffords has the pulse of the district down. She had an outstanding record as a state legislator and has continued that trend as a Congressional Representative. With anti-Dem sentiment building nationwide, the election will most likely be a competitive one, but I predict she will be re-elected. Perhaps the Republican candidate (probably Paton) will have George W. Bush come to Tucson for a fundraiser like Tim Bee did last election. That'll guarantee her re-election.

Posted by: apacheye | March 15, 2010 10:20 PM | Report abuse

How are the Native Americans voting ???


Posted by: 37thand0street | March 15, 2010 7:16 PM | Report abuse

Constituent service is more than a bulwark - it is why we elect folks to legislative offices.

An example: Jesse Helms was actually four clicks to the right of NC in his later years - but his constituent service, even to D constituents, was legendary and effective.

Posted by: mark_in_austin | March 15, 2010 4:51 PM | Report abuse

"So show some polling that anyone but Paton or Kelly has significant support."

Research is HARD.


Posted by: bsimon1 | March 15, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse

So show some polling that anyone but Paton or Kelly has significant support. Or is a little reporting too difficult to do?

Posted by: JakeD3 | March 15, 2010 3:52 PM | Report abuse

I agree with others here. This seemed fair for a change.

But this -- as one poster pointed out -- will be a food fight, and I doubt Giffords will have any trouble picking off what ever is left after these guys tear each other apart.

'there are four candidates for the Republican Party in Arizona's Congressional District #8! They are Brian Miller , Andy Goss, Johnathan Paton and Jesse Kelly. Both Paton and Kelly are NOT considered by many as the better choice; however, Brian Miller is endorsed by Ron Paul and many other active candiates.'

this is gong to be fun to watch.

Posted by: drindl | March 15, 2010 3:48 PM | Report abuse

I know you don't do a good job of reporting; however, there are four candidates for the Republican Party in Arizona's Congressional District #8! They are Brian Miller (, Andy Goss (, Johnathan Paton and Jesse Kelly. Both Paton and Kelly are NOT considered by many as the better choice; however, Brian Miller is endorsed by Ron Paul and many other active candiates. I would at least attempt to get your facts right.

Posted by: Del96 | March 15, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

Loved her profile on Wikipedia. She's just 39 and already has had a lot of exposure via a heads-up education and early commitment to governance. Why hasn't she been featured in The Rising?

Oh yeah -- pesky X chromosome *and* a Democrat.

Posted by: margaretmeyers | March 15, 2010 2:57 PM | Report abuse

It also sounds like Gifford may have the energy to target Kyl in a few years if she can survive this race. Raising that kind of money in a district as remote as hers is a pretty good accomplishment.

Posted by: AndyR3 | March 15, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

I think Giffords may have the pulse of the district down. The population growth in the past 5 years in the area has been folks moving to the outskirts of Tucson (mostly white college educated folks-ie moderate democrats) and Hispanics (who have voted pretty solidly for Democrats in the past two elections). Also there is a pretty significant military presence in her district and since no bases are closed and Obama has scaled back the Iraq war which should bring some of the soldiers home Giffords should be ok with that group too.
One x-factor in this race may be if McCain is in a real fight come election time. The down ticket effect of his primary battle may determine who she has to face come November. And I want to second that I like this type of story a lot.

Posted by: AndyR3 | March 15, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

I happened to visit AZ08 a couple weeks ago, where my sources speculated whether Arizonans would be ready to go further down the road of 'no new taxes / smaller government.' They though their property taxes were lower than they could be & that they'd rather pay more in taxes & not see things like highway rest areas shut down. It is unclear how widespread this feeling is in the area; they're MN transplants, only one of whom is registered to vote in AZ.

Posted by: bsimon1 | March 15, 2010 12:56 PM | Report abuse

"We could have had Ronald Reagan himself running in 2006 and 2008," said Paton. "Republicans were just not going to win."


Stone him!


Posted by: bsimon1 | March 15, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

Very interesting story. Looking forward to the next one.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | March 15, 2010 12:30 PM | Report abuse

I can't really comment except to say we need more posts like this, Chris.

Posted by: DDAWD | March 15, 2010 12:21 PM | Report abuse

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