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Giffords to resign, forcing 2 elections almost at once

1/23/2012
The Arizona Daily Star

Jan. 23--Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' decision to step down this week instead of finishing her term means many of the voters in what's now Congressional District 8 will see two rounds of primary and general elections this year.

Giffords announced her decision in a dramatic two-minute video posted on her congressional website, on Facebook and distributed to the news media Sunday morning.

The decision by the three-term congresswoman took many political insiders by surprise. Many had assumed that if she did step down she would just complete her term and let the normal November election cycle name her replacement.

But considering her campaign fundraising had continued unabated -- as recently as last month her campaign staff held a fundraiser attended by about 300 people, campaign manager Rodd McLeod said -- there was ample cause to anticipate she would run again.

"Surprised is a good word," said her Southern Arizona seatmate, U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva.

"This was a tough decision, certainly, since it's a pause for her in her career," Grijalva said. "But her recovery is the most important thing she needs to focus on, and I have no doubt she will return to full public life."

Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Rogers also called it a surprise, saying it creates a "kind of bizarre" situation since there will be a special primary and general election campaigns this spring, followed by the regular primary and general elections in the fall.

"You really could theoretically have someone win the special election and then have another candidate win in the next election."

Rogers said making the announcement now shows Giffords "really cares about this district, and it's clear she wants a Democrat representing it. This gives a window for someone to prepare and get ready for that race."

The announcement set up a guessing game as to who will run.

Republican state Sen. Frank Antenori, who had already announced a congressional exploratory effort and said he was likely to run if Giffords did not, called together his campaign staff last night to consider the implications of the special election.

"It's not as easy as it sounds," Antenori predicted.

The special election will be in the existing district of CD-8, in which Republicans have an advantage in registered voters. The regular election will be in the new district lines of what's now called CD-2, where the gap between Democrats and Republicans is negligible. That means two different campaign-finance reports and potentially two different campaign strategies.

Antenori said he's perplexed by her choice, from a political standpoint, although he wished her the best of luck in her recovery.

"It doesn't make political sense because this helps Republicans far more," he said, noting her existing district has more registered Republicans in it already.

"What you risk is that a Republican can win in the special election, and then run as an incumbent instead of in a head-on race in a closely divided district."

Not so, said former Democratic Tucson Mayor Tom Volgy, a political science professor at the University of Arizona.

Aside from the fact that Giffords kept her promise to step aside if she decided she couldn't do the job, Volgy said the decision favors Democrats.

"There is an enormous amount of good will toward Gabby, and whoever she would endorse would likely win the special election," Volgy predicted.

Volgy said the race is going to be "outrageously difficult" for any candidate who hopes to get through both cycles.

"Both will have to do an enormous amount of fundraising in a very short time, plus they're looking at shifting targets since we're still not sure what those districts will look like."

Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez said in her discussions with close associates of Giffords, the congresswoman felt it was too much to ask her constituents for another year to recover.

"She was very concerned about what was going to be best for the district," Rodriguez said. Elections or no, there is still another year left to go on the term.

The special election will cost about $1 million, Rodriguez estimated.

The Giffords congressional office staff will remain working through the transition.

Even before her December fundraiser, Giffords had nearly $879,000 in her re-election fund as of Sept. 30, the last date for which reports are available.

Secretary of State spokesman Matt Roberts said Giffords can keep those dollars to use in a subsequent race, so long as she continues to file reports as needed. She can also dole them out to other candidates or give them to charity, he said, adding there is no requirement she give them back to donors.

Giffords' announcement comes just days after she completed her fifth year in Congress, which means she will is fully vested in her congressional pension. Based on five years of service, she is eligible to receive $14,790 a year after she turns 62.

Who has the advantage going forward, at least among Democrats, may depend on whether Giffords endorses anyone.

Rogers said her campaign staff indicated to him that she may, indeed, have a preferred candidate, although they did not pass along any names.

Speculation has ranged from Giffords District Director Ron Barber to Chief of Staff Pia Carusone and Giffords' husband, Mark Kelly, who has said previously he's not interested. Some have suggested Michael McNulty, who served as Giffords' campaign chairman, or redistricting commissioner Linda McNulty, who is married to Michael. Other names in the mix include three state lawmakers, state Sen. Paula Aboud and state Reps. Steve Farley and Matt Heinz.

Farley said he is talking with his family about the possibility. "If Gabby and Mark decide to ask me to serve, I would do it with everything I've got, and I know I can win," Farley said.

But he said, "I've always thought all along that this is Gabby's seat, and ultimately, it is her decision about who to endorse to carry on her legacy."

Like many others, Farley predicted Tucson hasn't seen the last of Giffords. "Even though she's leaving this current role, she will again be leading us in some way, and she will be back in her beloved Tucson, I'm sure of it."

On the Republican side, Giffords' former challenger, Jesse Kelly, has been quiet enough that few insiders believe he will run. His spokesman, John Ellinwood, said, "Jesse is busy with work and family, and God only knows what the future will hold."

Along with Antenori, sports broadcaster Dave Sitton already has opened an exploratory campaign.

Other names being circulated in GOP circles include Pima County Supervisor Ray Carroll, Rio Nuevo Board Chairwoman Jodi Bain, and conservative Steve Christy. Adam Hansen from Cochise County has also registered with the Federal Election Commission.

Bain said her phone has been buzzing, not only from inquiries about Congress but also county supervisor. "I'm very flattered, but I can honestly say at this time, I don't know what's going to happen."

Carroll said Giffords' staff called him to meet with Giffords Monday morning. He said he will hear what she has to say and consult with his party, but said he was just reflecting on her decision.

Another scenario being raised by political observers is, if Giffords does endorse, she backs a placeholder. That would allow the Democrat going into the general election to focus exclusively on that race.

Republican National Committeeman Bruce Ash said his party members were still digesting the news, since most speculation was that she would complete her term.

Ash said he's not convinced a Giffords endorsement results in a lock for the Democrats. "Depending on who she picks, an endorsement doesn't go that far anymore. Voters are going to measure the person."

Having said that, he agrees that whoever wins the special will have a leg up going into the general, by capturing media attention and having at least a few months of incumbency to show they're working for the district.

He said he wished Giffords well and understood it was a difficult decision. "This is going to get us representation quicker than had she served out her entire term, but also, from a personal standpoint for her, it's got to be the best decision," Ash said.

"This is a key time within her recovery process. You don't want to have this sort of pressure bearing down on you. Everybody wants her to regain full health and possibly run for something else in the future."

Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at rbodfield@azstarnet.com or 573-4243. Reporter Tim Steller contributed to this report.

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