01.23.12

As Gabrielle Giffords Resigns, Who Might Pursue Her Arizona Seat?

Now that the recovering congresswoman has announced she'll step down, who are the likely candidates to try to take her old seat—and what does it mean for Democrats?

Before she was shot in the head a year ago, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was Arizona’s most promising Democrat. After she’d held on to her congressional seat for a third term in a highly contentious race, political analysts said she could write her ticket. Dems speculated she’d either run for governor next, or, more likely, set her sights on the U.S. Senate seat that was about to be vacated by Republican Jon Kyl.

But Giffords’s Jan. 22 video announcement that she would soon step down from Congress, coupled with former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona’s Jan. 17 official Senate campaign kickoff, dashed lingering speculation about the remote possibility that Gabby might run for the Senate.

Carmona, who served as surgeon general under President George W. Bush, had announced his intentions to enter the race in 2011. And he’d started accumulating a warchest. But the official Carmona campaign kickoff five days before Giffords’s video announcement seemed carefully timed.

Giffords will resign from her congressional seat Wednesday, the day after she attends the State of the Union Address, Democratic officials say.

And while Arizona Dems clearly hope to retain the congressional seat Giffords will vacate, they’ve been publicly mum about their strategy until Giffords, on her own timetable, made the decision about her future. 

In Arizona, Giffords is fast becoming as beloved and respected an icon as former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. To publicly hint about replacing Gabby before she stepped down would be unseemly and insensitive, several Democratic Party officials told me.

A few names that have been discreetly floated as possible candidates include Linda McNulty, who served on Arizona’s redistricting commission; Matt Heinz, a Tucson doctor who is serving in the Arizona House; Arizona Senate Minority Whip Paula Aboud; and two Giffords staffers —Pia Carusone and Ron Barber. On the Republican side, the name of Sen. Frank Antenori is frequently mentioned.

Mark Kelly, Giffords’s attentive astronaut husband, isn’t expected to throw his hat in the race.  But in hindsight, he seemed to hint that his wife would be resigning soon when he spoke at the University of Arizona on the anniversary of the shootings in front of a Tucson-area Safeway store that killed six and injured 13 others, including Giffords. In his speech, Kelly noted that the shootings caused “new realities to live with” that included “letting go of the past.”

In her resignation video, Giffords said: “A lot has happened over the past year. We cannot change that. But I know on the issues we fought for, we can change things for the better. Jobs, border security, veterans. We can do so much more by working together.

“I don’t remember much from that horrible day, but I will never forget the trust you placed in me to be your voice. Thank you for your prayers and for giving me time to recover. I have more work to do on my recovery, so to do what is best for Arizona, I will step down this week.

“I’m getting better. Every day, my spirit is high. I will return and we will work together for Arizona and this great country. Thank you very much.”

The timing of Giffords’s resignation now, instead of earlier in her recovery, should help Democrats win the seat if a recently redrawn map for Giffords’s district will be used during the special election that will soon be called by Arizona’s Gov. Jan Brewer.

Rep. Raul Grijlava, an Arizona Democrat who served with Giffords, told The Daily Beast that Giffords, by “continuing with her miraculous recovery,”  made the right move for herself and her family.

“This is just a pause,” Grijalva said. “She will continue to influence Arizona in many ways. When she is fully recovered, she can step back into public office without missing a beat.”

Andrei Cherny, who chairs the Arizona Democratic Party, said in a statement: “Gabby Giffords’s tenacity and generous spirit have always made her the example of what is best in Arizona. As she said today, nothing can change what happened last January. But in her time in public life, she has changed Arizona and America for the better. As she continues her work on her recovery, I have no doubt she will also continue to work for and inspire all of us in so many ways in the years to come.”

“I have more work to do on my recovery, so to do what is best for Arizona, I will step down this week.”

On Sunday,  President Barack Obama, in a statement released by the White House, praised Giffords as a moderate with a “willingness to listen to different ideas.”  He said she had “the best interests of her constituents in mind” when she decided to step down from Congress. And he lauded Giffords for teaching Americans “the true meaning of hope in the face of despair,” and selflessness.

And perhaps the president hinted that Giffords would be featured in his upcoming State of the Union message when he concluded: “And I’m confident that we haven’t seen the last of this extraordinary American.”