Former aide expected to win Gabrielle Giffords’ seat in the House

Democrats and Republicans nationwide will be closely watching Tuesday’s runoff election to decide who will finish the term of injured Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords -- a seat that is crucial for the Democrats’ campaign to regain control of the House in November.

The runoff in Arizona’s politically moderate 8th District follows a shooting rampage in January 2011 outside a Tucson grocery store that gravely wounded Giffords and killed six people, including a 9-year-old girl and a federal judge, and wounded 11 others. The popular Giffords, who was shot in the head, decided to step down in January to continue her recovery.

Tuesday’s race pits Democrat Ron Barber, a former Giffords aide who was also injured in the incident, against Republican Jesse Kelly, who narrowly lost to Giffords in 2010. The winner will complete the rest of Giffords’ term before competing for a full term in the November election.

Democrats need to gain 25 seats nationally come November to wrest majority power from their Republican rivals, who now hold a 240-192 advantage.

Experts say that while Barber is expected to win Tuesday’s runoff, a surprise win by Kelly could suggest genuine trouble for President Obama in his own race against Republican Mitt Romney.

“It would be a surprise if Kelly wins and would be indication that things are amiss for Democrats and that voters are still bent on sending President Obama a message,” said David Wasserman, an editor for the Washington, D.C.-based Cook Political Report. “Ideologically, this is more of a Barber than a Kelly district. Barber has cut a middle-of-the-road image, while Kelly has to overcome a tea party image from past campaigns among voters who are decidely more moderate than conservative.”

Over the weekend, Giffords appeared at a Barber rally to reinforce Barber’s promise that he would carry on her work in the district.

They have characterized the 30-year-old Kelly, a 6-foot-8 former Marine who served in Iraq, as too extreme for the district and as a candidate like Romney who has repeatedly shifted his position on issues such as protecting Social Security and Medicare.

While locally produced campaign have remained largely civil, attack ads have been sponsored from groups outside the state. One ad labeled Kelly a “radical Tea Party Republican,” and made an emotional appeal to allow Barber to carry on Giffords’ legacy in Congress.

Meanwhile, ads for Kelly have lumped Barber with what the ads call President Obama’s failed economic policies.

“Rubberstamp Ron Barber. More failed Obama policies that hurt Arizona,” claimed one TV ad from the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Many Republican national strategists predict that Tuesday’s results will add more momentum to the party’s decisive victory in Wisconsin’s gubernatorial recall last week. Democrats say the 66-year-old Barber still carries an emotional edge from his association with Giffords and the fact that he was also injured in the 2011 attack, shot in the leg and cheek.

But Wasserman said he believed the election will focus on politics, not personal relationships.

“We reached a point many months ago that this election is being driven by national issues,” he said. “Voters have moved beyond thinking of the election in terms of Gabby Giffords. Barber’s connection to her helps him sell voters on his positions on issues, but I don’t think his involvement in the tragedy gives him much of an advantage.”