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A Congressional Election In Arizona We All Wish Didn't Have To Take Place

Giffords resigned her seat in January after 4 years in Congress.
Ken Rudin collection
Giffords resigned her seat in January after 4 years in Congress.

If Republicans had their way, there would not have been a gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin. An unnecessary waste of time, many of them said.

Democrats, for the most part, disagree. Scott Walker's policies, they argued, mandated the recall election.

As for today's special election in Arizona's 8th Congressional District, both Democrats and Republicans agree that it shouldn't be taking place at all.

It's happening because Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D), who in 2010 had narrowly survived a tough Tea Party-backed challenge in her bid for a third term, was seriously wounded in a Jan. 8, 2011 Tucson shooting that left six people, including a member of her staff, dead. Unable to sufficiently recover to fulfill her duties as a member of Congress, she announced her resignation back in January.

That has left Democrats turning to Ron Barber, a 66-year old party stalwart who was Giffords' chief of staff and who was among those injured in the 2011 shooting. Barber, making his first bid for office, says he will follow in her footsteps.

The Republican candidate is once again Jesse Kelly, 30, a retired Marine and Iraq War veteran who came within one percentage point of defeating Giffords in 2010, losing by just over 4,000 votes. It was a miserable year for the Democrats in Arizona — two of her House colleagues lost — but Giffords held on.

Just as there were many attempts to make the Wisconsin recall more than it really was, there is a similar attempt to portray the Arizona special election as a referendum on President Obama, the Tea Party or 2012. In reality, it could well just be a referendum on Gabby Giffords.

And that would be just fine for the Democrats, who have not been receiving much good news of late. Last week's victory by Walker in Wisconsin was seen by many in the party as apocalyptic. Weak job numbers were of no help either. A Barber victory today would lessen that pain, even if only a little bit.

The Eighth. The district, as currently comprised, is located in the southeast corner of the state, with its center in parts of Tucson. It has a Republican registration advantage of about 26,000. From 1985 until his retirement 22 years later, it was represented by Jim Kolbe (R), a moderate conservative. When Kolbe left in 2006, the GOP nomination went to Randy Graf, a former state rep. whose immigration position was seen as so hard-line that Kolbe refused to support him. That gave Giffords, then a two-term state senator, the opportunity to make inroads with moderate Republicans; she won the seat with 54 percent of the vote. In 2008, despite the presence of favorite son John McCain on the presidential ballot, Giffords defeated Timothy Bee, the president of the state Senate, by 12 percentage points. But if 2006 and 2008 were Democratic years nationally, 2010 was a huge Republican year, and Giffords barely won.

Political Updates. I post periodic political updates during the week on Twitter. You can follow me at @kenrudin. Time for some questions from readers.

Q: I was confused by your numbers [in last week's column] regarding the California recall. You wrote that Gray Davis was recalled 55-45, but in the same sentence you said Arnold Schwarzenegger won the recall by 17 points. By my calculator, Schwarzenegger won it by ten points. — Debbie Thompson, Marietta, Ga.

One thing so memorable about the 2003 California recall election was the fine caliber of potential governors on the ballot.  (And so what if this button misspelled Gary Coleman's name?)
/ Ken Rudin collection
Ken Rudin collection
One thing so memorable about the 2003 California recall election was the fine caliber of potential governors on the ballot. (And so what if this button misspelled Gary Coleman's name?)

A: There were two separate ballot issues during that October 2003 recall election. The first one was a simple question of recalling Davis. That passed by a 55-45 percent margin. With the possibility that Davis would be ousted, there was a second question on the ballot: which of the 135 (!) candidates should replace him? Schwarzenegger (R) easily finished first, with 49 percent of the vote, followed by Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, with 32 percent. Third place went to GOP state Sen. (and now Congressman) Tom McClintock, with 13 percent; everyone else finished in single digits.

Q: I have a female governor, two female senators, a female representative, until recently a female mayor and chief of police, even a female dog/cat catcher! Are there any other districts that can boast such a line-up? — Jan Strobeck, Spokane, Wash.

A: None whatsoever. While two other states have two female senators — California (Democrats Dianne Feinstein & Barbara Boxer) and Maine (Republicans Olympia Snowe & Susan Collins) — none has a female governor. In Washington, you have Gov. Christine Gregoire (D), Sens. Patty Murray & Maria Cantwell (both Ds) and, in Spokane, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R). And until last December, the mayor of Spokane was Mary Verner. I can't attest to the identities of the dog/cat catcher.

Q: I was interested in your statement [see May 21 column] that Dwight David Eisenhower was actually born as David Dwight Eisenhower. Did he ever officially change the order of his names or was that just how he became known? — Coleman Travelstead, Albuquerque, N.M.

A: This, according to the Internet Accuracy Project:

His family had always addressed him by his middle name (Dwight) to differentiate him from his father, who was also named David, and later came to be known as Dwight David Eisenhower. Birth records, the Eisenhower family bible, and the Eisenhowers themselves, all confirm he was born David Dwight Eisenhower, and later transposed his first and middle names.

Q: I am writing with a plea for my sanity and my ability to continue to enjoy the exceptional political commentary your [Political Junkie segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation] show offers. I am exceedingly fond of Neal Conan, and even your high-octane scratchy-throatedness is starting to grow on me. The information you present is first rate. But that opening sequence, with all those quotes, heard over and over again every week, makes me want to deafen myself with a sharp pair of knitting needles. If I have to hear that outdated Howard Dean death knell one more time, I might do something rash. Please, *please*, come up with something else to introduce your spot on Wednesdays. Allow me to unclench my jaw and save my eardrums. — Jennifer Kosloski, Oakland, Calif.

A: Scratchy-throatedness?

Oh, and speaking of Dean, Jackie Dean (no relation I assume) of Fort Wayne, Ind., writes, "This is completely random, but I was watching an old episode of Breaking Bad on my computer with my headphones on and I came across the Howard Dean yell. In season 1, Episode 6 at the 44:08 mark, a building is exploding and they threw in that yell in the background. I just thought it was a cool little fact you might enjoy."

Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, the Political Junkie segment appears on Talk of the Nation (NPR's call-in program), hosted by Neal Conan with me adding color commentary, where you can, sometimes, hear interesting conversation, useless trivia questions, and sparkling jokes. Last week's show focused on the Wisconsin recall results, as well as the California and New Jersey primaries, and the special guest was Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation magazine, on progressives.

June 6 TOTN Junkie segment

Podcast. There's also a new episode of our weekly podcast, "It's All Politics," up every Thursday. It's hosted by my partner-in-crime, Ron Elving, and me.

And Don't Forget ScuttleButton. ScuttleButton, America's favorite waste-of-time button puzzle, can usually be found in this spot every Monday or Tuesday. A randomly-selected winner will be announced every Wednesday during the Political Junkie segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation. You still have time to submit your answer to the most recent contest, which you can see here. Not only is there incredible joy in deciphering the answer, but the winner gets a TOTN t-shirt!


June 12 — Special election in Arizona's 8th CD to succeed Gabrielle Giffords (D), who resigned. Also: congressional primaries in Nevada, North Dakota, South Carolina and Virginia.

June 26 — Congressional primaries in Colorado, New York, Oklahoma and Utah. Senate primary to watch: Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) vs. challenger Dan Liljenquist. House primary to watch: Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) vs. challenger Adriano Espaillat.

June 27 — TOTN Political Junkie segment from Aspen, Colo.

July 31 — Georgia primary. Texas runoff primary.

Aug. 2 -- Tennessee primary.

Aug. 7 -- Primaries in Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Washington.

Aug. 11 -- Hawaii primary.

Aug. 14 -- Primaries in Connecticut, Florida, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Aug. 21 -- Wyoming primary.

Aug. 27-30 — Republican National Convention, Tampa, Fla.

Aug. 28 — Primaries in Alaska, Arizona and Vermont.

Mailing list. To receive a weekly email alert about the new column and ScuttleButton puzzle, contact me at politicaljunkie@npr.org.

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please include your city and state. *********

/ Ken Rudin collection
Ken Rudin collection

This day in campaign history: South Carolina Democrats nominate Strom Thurmond for the Senate seat he vacated earlier in the year. OK, let's see how confusing I can make this. In 1954, Sen. Burnet Maybank (D), running for a third term, died unexpectedly. The Democratic state committee decided to reject holding a special primary and instead picked state Sen. Edgar Brown as the party nominee. Angered by the process, Thurmond, a former governor, decided to launch a write-in campaign and was easily elected, with 63 percent of the vote. As he promised, Thurmond resigned the seat prior to the 1956 primary to give voters, not the state party committee, the choice. He won the primary and general election without lifting a finger. Thurmond switched to the GOP in 1964. By the time he retired in January 2003, he broke several records, including becoming the oldest as well as the longest-serving senator in history (June 12, 1956).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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