Though U.S. Rep. Ron Barber won the election for Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District, Republican operatives have reasons to be hopeful in 2014 because of his narrow margin of victory and his loss in key precincts won by former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Barber lost in several locations Giffords had won in previous elections — including the Republican stronghold of Cochise County, which she won in 2006 and 2008 but lost in 2010, and in the Green Valley area, where Giffords won all three times.
According to a joint analysis by the Arizona Capitol Times and the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting, Barber maintained his thin lead over Republican Martha McSally by capturing more than double the number of competitive precincts in the district, most of which are on the north and east rim of Tucson. The analysis shows that Barber performed about 3 percent better than voter registration numbers would suggest in the district’s competitive precincts.
He also held ground by mitigating his losses in some solidly Republican areas, performing between 5 percent and 10 percent better than the voter registration numbers would suggest in Republican-leaning precincts on Tucson’s east and north sides.
Likewise, McSally kept the race close by holding ground in some surprising places. Though she still lost overwhelmingly in the Democratic strongholds of Bisbee and Douglas, she performed much better than the voter registration numbers would indicate — polling between 10 percent and 30 percent better in the few, sparsely populated precincts in those areas.
Explore the CD2 map
Click on the map for precinct-level vote and demographic details. Precincts are colored by the vote percentage. Precincts outlined in black are the most competitive precincts in the district.
The Capitol Times defines competitive precincts as those with the two major party voter registration numbers at 47.5 percent to 52.5 percent or closer. Over and under performances are defined in percent of the vote received above or below the registration percentage for Republicans and Democrats in the area.
In the end, Barber beat McSally by 2,454 votes even though GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney won the district’s overall vote by 1,458 votes. That means that almost 4,000 voters split their tickets — voting for Romney at the top of their ballot and Barber for Congress.
But Barber’s win was by a slimmer margin than any election Giffords won in the former CD8. The new district, which mostly mirrors the old district boundaries and maintains a small Republican advantage, became slightly more hospitable to Democratic candidates after redistricting.
Democratic campaign strategist Rodd McLeod, who worked on both of Barber’s campaigns and Giffords’ 2010 campaign, said Barber’s ability to pull moderate Republican voters to his side shows he is a perfect fit for the district, which has elected conservative Democrats as well as moderate Republicans.
“It’s a 50-50 district… When you look at a district that will support a Republican for president, on the very same day that they support a Democrat for Congress, that’s a swing district,” he said.
But Daniel Scarpinato, a former Tucsonan who now works as the National Republican Congressional Committee’s national press secretary, said close margins in the race show that Barber is vulnerable in the next election. He called the district a “top target” and said his organization plans to spend the next two years plotting to defeat Barber. Scarpinato said he has been doing his own analysis, and CD2 is one of only seven congressional districts in the country where voters have cast their ballots for a Republican president in the past three election cycles, but a Democrat holds the seat.
“He barely squeaked through by what amounts almost to a rounding error, and that was in a presidential turnout year… Turnout in a mid cycle is much different, so it’s going to be interesting how that plays out,” he said.
Both sides agree that Barber’s loss in Green Valley — a Republican-leaning retirement community south of Tucson where both sides campaigned heavily — probably had a lot to do with the federal health care law and Social Security, issues that hurt Democrats across the country. They disagree, though, on the reasons for that.
Scarpinato said what hurt Barber the most was his refusal to answer questions during the special election about whether he supported “Obamacare” and then voting to defend it after he was elected. McLeod said Republicans’ television advertising campaign about Obamacare cuts to Medicare was a blow to Barber. He over-performed in the area by 5 percent to 8 percent, but still only received roughly 45 percent of the vote.
“Green Valley is a Republican area, and Ron Barber over-performed there, and I think that over time, he’ll do better and better,” McLeod said.
But Scarpinato said, “Ron Barber is a very partisan liberal Democrat who I don’t think is very appealing to moderates or conservatives, so clearly he had trouble there.”
McLeod blames Barber’s loss in Cochise County on the changing political landscape there, saying the Tea Party has taken over since Giffords last won an election there in 2008. Scarpinato said even the Democrats there consider themselves conservative, and Barber is too liberal for them.
While Barber has remained coy about his intentions for 2014 and McSally is also laying low for the time being, many people expect a rematch in the next election and both sides are formulating a plan for 2014.
“Should (Barber) choose to run again, his problems are going to be amplified because people are going to know even more about his record. The trend here seems to be the more people in southern Arizona get to know Ron Barber, and the more he votes in Congress with Nancy Pelosi and Obama, the less they like him,” Scarpinato said.
McLeod said Barber has the formula down to keep winning in a competitive district, and with two more years in Congress under his belt, he would be a sure bet in 2014, should he run for re-election.
“How do you win? You win by running strong in the places that are natural to you and keeping it close in places you’re going to lose,” McLeod said.