Ron Barber had no competition last spring in a special primary election to replace his old boss, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, until her term expired. He then went on to decisively beat a tea party Republican who had nearly unseated Giffords from her southern Arizona district in 2010.
Now, the newly minted congressman has a Democratic challenger Tuesday’s primary election for the renumbered 2nd Congressional District and is likely to face a strong Republican challenger in November, although Barber is seen as having an advantage.
Matt Heinz, a physician and two-term state representative, was among Democrats who decided not to run after Giffords endorsed Barber when she resigned in January. This time is different, Heinz said.
Voters in the redrawn 2nd District deserve a real discussion of Democratic Party values and a choice among candidates, he said.
“They are interested in an actual election,” said Heinz, 35. “They do not want to rubber-stamp someone.”
After Barber and Heinz face off, the winner will take on one of two Republicans running in their party’s primary.
Barber is the favorite in the primary and has the advantage of an incumbent in the general election, said Margaret Kenski, a longtime southern Arizona pollster who has worked for Republican campaigns. But some of his congressional votes have drawn criticism from fellow Democrats, she said.
“As soon as you build a record, you’re going to make somebody unhappy,” Kenski said. “But I still think he’s in the driver’s seat as far as the (primary) race is concerned. It’s hard for competition to get the money and compete.”
The GOP front-runner is 46-year-old Martha McSally, a retired Air Force colonel who was the first woman to fly in combat and command a fighter squadron.
McSally faces a little-known challenger, Mark Koskiniemi, a 48-year-old chemical engineer who has never run for office. He has raised so little money that he wasn’t required to file a report with the federal Election Commission earlier this month. Still, he said he expects to surprise many with how well he does.
McSally came in a strong second to Jesse Kelly in April’s special primary election. Kelly gave Giffords a tough challenge in 2010 but has lost twice in general elections and withdrew from the race for a full term after losing to Barber in June’s special election.
The new 2nd District includes parts of Tucson and Pima County and all of Cochise County. It is considered a moderate district winnable by either party. Republicans have a slight registration advantage, with Democrats and independents close behind.
Heinz has criticized Barber for voting for a bill that would waive environmental protections on protected federal lands along the U.S.-Mexico border so Border Patrol agents have unfettered access. It would allow agents to drive vehicles on currently off-limit land to pursue illegal immigrants who now cross those areas mostly undisturbed.
Barber said he had pledged to strengthen border security and it should be no surprise he voted for the bill, which faces an uncertain fate in the Democratically controlled Senate. He said if it is considered in the Senate, he hopes it is amended to cut its reach from 100 miles from the border to a smaller area.
Heinz also blasted Barber for voting to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for failing to turn over documents related to the botched “Fast and Furious” gun-running investigation, calling the Republican-led effort politically motivated.
“Quite frankly, I think that any time the president uses executive privilege to prevent the release of documents, we have a responsibility to ask whether it is properly invoked,” Barber responded. “And the only place you can do that is the courts.”
McSally, preparing for a November matchup, also criticized Barber’s votes, saying that except for the votes Heinz criticized, he sided with liberal Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva of the nearby 3rd District “on almost everything.”
Barber, who turns 67 on Saturday, said he feels good about his position in the primary.
“We have a strong team and I think we’re in a good position to win but I never take anything for granted,” he said. “We’re going to run hard right up to the 28th of August and then start over again, hopefully.”