Ariz. Voters Pick Giffords' Aide To Replace Her

Voters in Southern Arizona decided Tuesday who will replace former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords for the remainder of her term: her former district director, Ron Barber. Giffords resigned from Congress in January to focus on recovery from injuries she suffered in a shooting in early 2011. Barber was also injured. His Republican opponent, Tucson businessman Jesse Kelly, narrowly lost to Giffords two years ago.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Democrats easily held onto a congressional seat in Arizona last night, filling a vacancy created when Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords resigned. Giffords, the victim of an assassination attempt in early 2011, stepped down so she could concentrate on her recovery from the gunshot wound that she received.

And as NPR's Ted Robbins reports from Tucson, the winner of last night's special election was Giffords' hand-picked successor.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: The race was not as close as many expected. In his first try for public office, Democrat Ron Barber beat his opponent by about seven points. The 66-year-old Barber will now take over the seat in Arizona's 8th District for the six months remaining in this term.

Until recently, Barber was Gabby Giffords' district director and he was a victim of the same gunman who shot her. Barber recovered from two bullet wounds that day and, at Giffords' behest, ran for her seat. Last night, he expressed wonder at what he said were the unexpected turns life takes.

REPRESENTATIVE-ELECT RON BARBER: I never thought I'd run for office. But in some ways being here makes sense to me because I'm exactly where I've always been - rooted here, right here in Southern Arizona, with a new opportunity to serve this community that I love so much.

ROBBINS: Voters apparently didn't buy the strategy of Barber's Republican opponent, Tea Party favorite Jesse Kelly, who with the help of the national GOP tried to tie Barber to President Obama.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And Ron Barber wants to go to Washington to help President Obama. It's time to put a stop to the Barber/Obama team.

ROBBINS: Jesse Kelly had been the party nominee against Giffords in 2010, losing by just two percentage points. Last night, the 30-year-old former Marine, who now works for his father's construction company, told a small crowd that even though he lost, he wouldn't have done anything differently.

JESSE KELLY: We came into this race with a plan, we executed the plan we wanted, and the voters of southern Arizona have chosen something different, and that's fine. We are blessed by God to live in a country where the voters get exactly what they want.

ROBBINS: What voters wanted was a man who calls himself a moderate Democrat, following the formula that had worked for Giffords in this swing district, where Republicans have had a registration edge.

Barber's strategy focused sharply on Jesse Kelly's past statements that he would privatize Social Security for younger workers and cut back Medicare. Here's a Democratic Party ad with Tucson construction worker Noel Hatfield.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

NOEL HATFIELD: Jesse Kelly said that over time he's going to get rid of Medicare. I don't think it's right for Jesse Kelly and people to decide that I don't get my Medicare that I've been paying for.

ROBBINS: Gabby Giffords herself played a low-key role in the race. She still walks slowly, one arm often in a sling, with halting speech. She appeared at a concert for Barber last Saturday with her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

REPRESENTATIVE GABBY GIFFORDS: Thank you for the support.

MARK KELLY: Thank you very much.

GIFFORDS: Thank you very much.

ROBBINS: During that weekend concert, the Barber campaign said it picked up several hundred volunteers to help get out the vote. Yet Barber actually lost among voters who went to the polls yesterday. He won big with early voters, and that more than made the difference.

Both Ron Barber and Jesse Kelly have filed to run for a full term this fall in a newly drawn version of this district - one that leans more Democratic. Last night, Jesse Kelly said he still plans to run but that he's going to take a day to sleep on it.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

MONTAGNE: And while Arizona residents were voting on a new member of Congress, primaries were held in a handful of other states around the country, choosing party favorites for the November elections.

Voters in North Dakota chose to allow North Dakota University sports teams to drop their traditional nickname, Fighting Sioux - a reference to the Sioux Nation. The NCAA has called the nickname offensive to Native Americans and threatened sanctions against the school's teams. The issue now goes back to the state Board of Higher Education for further review. The North Dakota board is expected to retire the name.

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