Analysis: Arizona win ‘an oasis in the desert’ for Democrats

Washington (CNN) — It’s been a tough couple of weeks for the Democratic Party, especially the results in last week’s Wisconsin governor recall vote. So Tuesday night’s victory in the special election in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District couldn’t have come at a better time.

For Democrats, “it’s an oasis in the desert” says CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley.

The race was to succeed former Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords, who stepped down in January, one year after surviving a gunshot wound to the head. Her former aide Ron Barber, who also was severely injured in the shooting, beat Republican candidate Jesse Kelly, a former Marine who narrowly lost to Giffords in the 2010 midterm elections. Because of Giffords’ high profile, the race garnered national attention.

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Jobs and the economy were the top issues in the race, with Kelly trying to tie Barber to President Obama and to make the contest a referendum on the president.

Barber, a moderate Democrat, tried to stick to local issues, but did say Monday on CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight” that he would vote for Obama in November.

As expected, top House Democrats were quick to tout the victory in the district, which encompasses the southeastern corner of the state including parts of Tucson, a district that leans slightly Republican.

“Arizona’s 8th Congressional District has more registered Republicans than Democrats, this race has been rated a toss-up throughout the election and Republican outside groups outspent Democratic outside groups by more than $500,000,” said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Ron Barber’s strong campaign made this a referendum on the Republican plans to drastically cut Medicare and privatize Social Security, while giving massive tax breaks to millionaires, Big Oil and corporations that ship jobs overseas. The Republican plan lost.”

“This campaign previewed the message fight that will play out across the country in November: Democrats committed to protecting the middle class, Social Security and Medicare versus misleading Republican attacks on Obamacare and national Democrats,” Israel said.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the former House Speaker and top Democrat in the chamber, echoed Israel’s emphasis on the middle class, Medicare and Social Security, saying that Barber “has run, and won, this campaign by holding fast to the values and priorities shared by families across southern Arizona: creating jobs, strengthening the middle class and protecting the promises of Medicare and Social Security for seniors and future generations.”

Top Republicans played down the loss.

“Special elections are unique, and the tragic turn of events that led to this one are no exception. No one wanted this election to happen, or to see Gabrielle Giffords step down from Congress, but Jesse ran a campaign focused on pro-growth policies that will lead to less government and a strong and vibrant economy,” Rep. Pete Sessions, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said.

“It is clear that Ron Barber knew that voters in this district would never accept his true positions on President Obama’s agenda, which have made a bad economy worse in this state. That explains why he did his best to conceal his support for so much of that agenda,” Sessions said. “Barber will not have that advantage in November when he will be on the ballot with President Obama, nor will any of his House Democrat colleagues.”

So which party’s right about the implications from Arizona?

“Special elections, by nature, involve special circumstances, and you’re not going to see another race this fall where the former and incoming member were both victims of such a horrific attack,” Jessica Taylor, senior analyst/reporter at the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, said.

“In the end, this tells us more about this snapshot in time predicated by the tragic events that caused this race, than the efficacy of these messages in other districts, even though both parties did hew closely to the arguments they’ll make this fall.

“While they’ll make gains, Democrats still face a highly unlikely road back to the majority in November, and this was a seat they held onto, not gained. They’ll have to hold others, more difficult than this and knock off other Republicans to make a chink in the GOP’s advantage,” Taylor said.

The Democrats still need a pick up of 25 GOP-held seats to win back the House in November.

But a win’s a win, and at a time when the party and the president are experiencing a turbulent ride, the results in Arizona are a quick shot in the arm.

“You can nitpick this in a variety of ways,” Crowley said, “but the fact of the matter is that the Democrats won. After last week, this is a long cold drink of water for the Democrats, and they’ll take it.”

Can this victory translate to November?

Crowley said the Democrats’ emphasis on entitlements in the Arizona District 8 contest “can be a template for other Democrats facing a rough re-election in November.”

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