04.26.11

The Democrats' Giffords Senate Puzzle

With Gabrielle Giffords still recovering from being shot and not ready for a tough campaign, the party is scrambling to find a strong contender to battle the GOP's Jeff Flake—and fast. David A. Graham examines the field.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was long seen as a savior for the Arizona Democratic Party. Democrats haven't had a senator from the state since 1995. Giffords, however, was the total package: charismatic, energetic, a moderate in a purple state, and a great fundraiser to boot. Sen. Jon Kyl's seat was up in 2012, and she was seen as a candidate who could defeat him. If Kyl retired, all the better: She might even be a shoo-in.

But the January shooting of Giffords in Tucson gave Arizona Democrats bigger things to focus on—Giffords' life chief among them. As reports of a "miraculous" recovery filtered out, some even kept hope alive that she might be ready for a triumphant return as the Grand Canyon State's newest senator.

Four months later, though, it's increasingly clear that Giffords won't be ready. But Arizona Democrats are still flatfooted, with all the likely candidates keeping quiet, waiting on Giffords and terrified that announcing a candidacy now would come across as insensitive and opportunistic—even as Republican Jeff Flake shores up his support and amasses an imposing war chest. Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva has been sounding the alarm for some time. "I think the heir apparent was Gabby Giffords. Her situation is different, obviously," he told The Hill two weeks ago. "We need to get a candidate quick, within the next month."

Giffords' office has repeatedly said it's too early in her recovery to make any comments about a campaign. But new revelations about the congresswoman over the weekend should hasten others to taking Grijalva's view. There was good news: Giffords' husband said she's eager to get back to work, and announced that she has been cleared to attend the Friday launch of the space shuttle he is commanding. But a Daily Beast story showed that while her progress is indeed extraordinary, she still has a long way to go. For example, Giffords seems to be able to think at nearly full capacity, but has trouble expressing herself verbally. The takeaway? There's much to celebrate, but Giffords is unlikely to be ready to barnstorm the state in a fierce campaign just months from today.

“They don’t have that many Democrats in elected office, so the bench is weak.”

Now Democratic figures in the state are scrambling to get a good candidate. Grijalva declined to be interviewed for this story, but other state Democrats acknowledge he's right: They need to get a candidate into the race fast if they hope to have a shot at the seat. With each passing day, what looked like a strong possibility for a Democratic pickup in a tough Senate election cycle gets tougher. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates Arizona as a likely hold for the GOP.

"This is an open Senate seat and they don't come open that often," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "You look at a place like Arizona and they don't have that many Democrats in elected office, so the bench is weak."

But even without many current officeholders, around a dozen candidates are considering the race, says Arizona Democratic Party Chairman Andrei Cherny. Nationally, the names being bandied about include folks like Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, a former governor; Jim Pederson, who ran against Kyl in 2006 and is former chairman of the state party; Terry Goddard, who was twice elected state attorney general but was creamed by Jan Brewer in the race for governor last year; and Fred DuVal, a Democratic activist. Grijalva said he'd urge Pederson and Goddard to run. But Napolitano, DuVal, and Pederson have all ruled themselves out, and insiders say a Goddard run looks unlikely, too—not least because Goddard doesn't have the thirst for fundraising that a Senate candidate will need.

So who's left? "I'm talking to people all the time about this race," Cherny says. "There's a lot of very strong, credible, potential candidates out there. A lot of conversations are happening behind the scenes." And he says there's plenty of time for Democrats to find a strong candidate.

Don Bivens, a lawyer and former chairman of the state party, seems like a sure bet. "We're all still rooting for Gabby to recover and run, but the clock is ticking, and we do need a plan B," he says. "We need a senator who will stand up for Arizona. I think I could provide that kind of strong and common-sense leadership." And while he insists he's still considering, Bivens has already met with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and current senators about running. He'll decide by Labor Day.

Rep. Ed Pastor, a Phoenix Democrat, is also a potential candidate. A spokeswoman said Pastor was still considering and wasn't ready to make any further statements. U.S Attorney Dennis Burke's name also seems to be on Democratic insiders' lips: Burke is young and like his mentor Napolitano—who held the same position—could move up in state ranks. But he's also busy prosecuting Jared Lee Loughner in the Giffords case. A source close to Burke wouldn't quite offer a Shermanesque denial on Burke's part, but seemed perplexed at the attention and said Burke wasn't concentrating on running for elected office.

Although he isn't talking about it publicly, Cherny is an ambitious young politician, too, and might want to jump in. At 21, he was the youngest White House speechwriter in history, and published a successful policy book in 2001. But Cherny also lost a 2010 race for state treasurer by 10 points.

"We are talking to a number of Democratic leaders in the state about the race and we are confident that a strong candidate will emerge," a DSCC spokesman said. He declined to say who the committee had spoken with besides Bivens.

At some point, the question for Democrats may be getting candidates to stop tiptoeing around Giffords and get into the race, rather than concentrating on recruiting the perfect figurehead. If they wait, the conventional wisdom that Flake can't lose will become entrenched, says Sabato. "If that is the prevailing wisdom and it holds, it will be over," he says. "These things have a way of becoming reality."

David Graham is a reporter for Newsweek covering politics, national affairs, and business. His writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The National in Abu Dhabi.