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Posted at 3:12 PM ET, 02/14/2011

Can Gabrielle Giffords win a Senate race?

By Aaron Blake

Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords

As Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords continues to recuperate from last month's assassination attempt, the possibility of her making a Senate bid in 2012 is being seriously discussed in Democratic circles.

Before she was shot in the head last month in Tucson, the conventional wisdom was that Giffords was a prime contender for Sen. Jon Kyl's (R-Ariz.) Senate seat.

Now that Kyl is retiring, there is a genuine pickup opportunity for Democrats in the state, and Arizona Democratic Party Chairman Andrei Cherny says Giffords remains at the top of the list.

"It goes without saying that even before the attack, she was at the top of everyone's list," said Cherny, who was recruited to run for the post by Giffords. "I think the things that make Gabby Giffords an attractive senate candidate are 90 percent things that have nothing to do with the tragedy in Tucson."

The congresswoman is making strides in her recovery. She still has a long way to go, but given that she was laying the groundwork for a Senate campaign before the shooting, it seems logical that a full or near-full recovery in the coming months could very well lead to a 2012 Senate run. (One smart Democratic operative pegs the chances of Giffords running at 35 percent.)

But could she win?

A look at why she could -- and couldn't -- is after the jump.

Why Giffords could win

* The history of political tragedies

The public generally likes a politician more after they survive a personal tragedy. President Reagan's highest approval rating ever came after a 1981 assassination attempt. Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) easily won reelection in 2008 after a brain hemorrhage nearly took his life. (Six years earlier he had squeaked by Republican John Thune by 524 votes.) And there are several examples of politicians dying but still winning their next election -- the most well known being former Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan's posthumous Senate victory in 2000.

Not all politicians get a big bump from tragedy, though. Former President Gerald Ford actually saw his approval rating fall slightly after two assassination attempts in 1975, as did Harry Truman after a 1950 attempt. And the assassination attempt on President Richard Nixon in 1974 did little to extend his already-struggling presidency.

Giffords almost certainly fits into the former category, as she quickly became a local, national and even international hero in the wake of the shooting.

* Her profile

Even before the tragedy, Giffords was seen as the right kind of Democrat to run a statewide race in Arizona. She's a prodigious fundraiser, she's got a moderate record that a Democrat would need in a red-tilting state, and she's got a proven record of winning in a swing district -- including in a very tough race in 2010.

Giffords was one of very few Democratic success stories last year, as two other Arizona Democrats -- Reps. Harry Mitchell and Ann Kirkpatrick -- weren't so lucky. That victory only added to her political stock among Democratic insiders.

* The primaries

It's hard to see any Democrats challenging Giffords if she does wind up running, and a clear primary is a great luxury to have for any candidate.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R), who announced his campaign Monday, may still face primary opposition from Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Rep. Trent Franks or state Senate President Russell Pearce, among others. And we saw what happened after some rough-and-tumble GOP Senate primaries in 2010. (Christine O' Donnell, anyone?)

Why Giffords couldn't win

* The waiting game

Flake is already in the race, and if Giffords runs, it won't be for a while yet. Even if she's fully recovered and can run a standard-issue statewide campaign, she'll be at least several months -- maybe a year -- behind, and that matters. Flake, even if he does face primary opposition, will enjoy a significant head start.

There's also the chilling effect on other ambitious Democrats that a potential Giffords candidacy could have. It's hard to imagine any other major Democrat announcing their plan to run while Giffords is still mulling the race. And, if she ultimately decides not to run, any and all Democrats would be forced to rapidly ramp up.

That wait-and-see reality is more problematic given the relative thinness of the Democratic bench in the state. Unless Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano -- or maybe Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon -- jumps into the race, there isn't a big-name Democrat with a proven track record waiting out there.

* The state

Despite inching towards Democrats in recent year, Arizona remains a Republican-leaning state where, unlike much of the west, the GOP had a very good year in 2010. There may be plenty of goodwill for Giffords, but the state only gave Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) 44 percent in the 2004 presidential race and President Obama in 2008 took 45 percent. (Sidebar: Obama was running against a homestate senator, John McCain).

* The campaign

Giffords may be well-liked, famous, and have lots of people pulling for her. But she would be running a race in which seven-eighths of voters will have never cast a ballot for her before.

There's also sometimes a disconnect between approval ratings and electability. While people may feel strongly for Giffords as a person and report that they like her to a pollster, that's not always enough for them to say, 'I'd like her to represent me in the Senate.'

It's still very early in the process, but Giffords will be big news in the months to come, and if she runs for Senate, it would be a huge political story.

Giffords was a contender before the shooting and is a contender still, but lots of things are going to have to happen first before her candidacy becomes even close to a reality.

By Aaron Blake  | February 14, 2011; 3:12 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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