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