Battle for Congress

The Battle Is On in Gabby Giffords’s Old District

One of this year’s hottest House fights: A rematch between an ex-Giffords staffer and the GOP woman who’s trying to out-Gabby her opponent.

Eric Thayer/Reuters

In a dangerous world, who will protect us? That’s the question posed in an ad for Martha McSally, a former Air Force fighter pilot deployed to combat zones six times, now running for a House seat in Arizona. The ad says her opponent, Democratic incumbent Ron Barber, missed a hearing on the ISIS threat and isn’t doing enough to protect the A-10, which just happens to be the attack plane McSally commanded, and the military base where she was stationed in Tucson, Arizona.

“Who do you trust?” the male narrator asks over images of McSally in combat gear and dress uniform. Those images are a sign of the times: With more women serving in the military, they can now use their experience to lord it over men the way men once held the advantage over women. But is it enough to move voters away from someone they know and like and, yes, someone they trust, who has deep roots in the community?

For voters in Arizona’s second district, it’s a tough call, one of 17 House races (out of 435) that the non-partisan Cook Political Report rates a tossup. It’s also gotten personal, not so much between McSally and Barber, a congenial bear of a man who was a congressional staffer before stepping into the principal’s role, but between McSally and Barber’s former boss.

That ex-boss happens to be Gabrielle Giffords, the former Congresswoman who was shot by a gunman outside a Tucson supermarket in 2011. McSally faced Barber for the seat in 2012, and she rubbed Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, the wrong way that year when she implied in an ad that she is the same kind of moderate trailblazer that Giffords was when she held the seat in Congress.

The comparison prompted Kelly to release the terse statement: “Martha McSally is no Gabby Giffords.” That time, Barber won narrowly. But now McSally is back for a rematch. The Giffords-Kelly PAC, Americans for Responsible Solutions (ARS), has spent $1 million against McSally, hitting her in a series of gun-related ads, the most controversial of which had to do with stalking, and which ARS agreed last month to pull after McSally said she had once been a victim of stalking.

The genesis of the ad is McSally’s 100 percent NRA rating, which reflects the gun group’s position that no new gun laws are needed. ARS identified what it called the “stalker gap,” where people convicted of stalking as a misdemeanor can still carry guns. Though McSally changed her position after the ad aired, editorial reaction was unsparing, calling the ad “vile” and out of character for Giffords, a beloved figure in the district.

Despite the PR hit from the good-government crowd, the torrent of ads from ARS has driven up McSally’s negatives. David Wasserman, who tracks House races for the Cook Political Report, says McSally is “a really good candidate, but the Democrats are running a superior race.”

Outside Democratic groups are taking her to task for positions she took in the past that are at odds with the moderate image she is trying to project. Two years ago, she wanted to privatize Social Security, and she supported the Ryan Budget that would have turned Medicare into a voucher system. Tucson is a retirement mecca, and senior citizens who didn’t know much about McSally now have mixed feelings about her sudden ascendancy.

McSally says her past positions are being mischaracterized, but her refusal to answer simple questions like whether she supports an increase in the minimum wage prompted this comment on the Arizona Daily Star website that for a fighter pilot, “she sure seems afraid of her shadow…Answer the dang question.”

The seat is a top priority for both parties. For Democrats, it’s emotional. They want to hold the seat that Giffords had to give up after being shot in the head by a mentally ill man. Her valiant recovery made her an inspiration for everyone, and an icon for Democrats. For Republicans, electing a fresh talent like McSally is a chance to do more than just hold the House, but to bring in new faces that can help fix their image as a party that’s out of touch with a changing America.

The Republican caucus in the House is 89 percent white men, says Wasserman. “If they can get younger women elected they have a chance of revitalizing their party and expanding their appeal.” Along with the 48-year-old McSally, the GOP’s wish list for Election Day includes Elise Stefanik, a 30-year-old Harvard grad in upstate New York, and Mia Love, a 38-year-old African American woman in Utah making a repeat bid after a narrow loss in 2012.

McSally calls herself a Republican feminist and earned a spot on “60 Minutes” for defying a Pentagon rule that required women stationed in Saudi Arabia to cover themselves and never appear without a military male escort who they would then refer to as their husband. At some risk to her career, she sued then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, eventually prompting Congress to act before the suit was litigated.

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McSally is more like Giffords in the image she projects than most other Republicans, but she has to be careful not to overplay her hand. An ad released Tuesday by the National Republican Campaign Committee’s Independent Expenditure Campaign features an image of Giffords, and says Giffords fought for border security and against Nancy Pelosi while Barber sided with Pelosi. It’s the first time in the race that Giffords has appeared in an ad, and it’s for the candidate she doesn’t support. With just weeks to go, the race to fill this iconic seat could get a lot more personal.

“No organization or person—no matter which party they say they represent—should think they can come to Southern Arizona and pretend to speak for me. I work hard to speak, but it’s my voice,” Giffords said in a statement repudiating the ad and endorsing Barber. “Ron is an independent leader in Congress, and no one will fight harder for our community.” Barber’s communications director points out that while the ad seeks to align McSally with Giffords, an almost identical NRCC ad in 2010 depicted Giffords as a marionette controlled by Pelosi.