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Gabrielle Giffords for Senate? Speculation runs high for 2012 race

As GOP Rep. Jeff Flake announces bid to replace Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, Democrats wonder whether Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in Tucson on Jan. 8, might make a run for the seat.

February 15, 2011|By James Oliphant, Washington Bureau
  • Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was shot in the forehead last month in Tucson and is recovering at a rehabilitation facility in Houston.
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was shot in the forehead last month in… (Office of Rep. Gabrielle…)

Rep. Jeff Flake made it official this week. Four days after Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona said he would not stand for reelection in 2012, the six-term GOP congressman from suburban Phoenix said he'd launch a bid to replace him.

But much of the speculation concerning the seat, such as it can exist 18 months before an election, continues to swirl around Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

A few short weeks ago, it was unimaginable that anyone could tie Giffords' name to a 2012 Senate campaign, but the wounded congresswoman, shot in Tucson on Jan. 8, is reportedly making so much progress that the prospect sounds plausible, if not, as of yet, very realistic.

Prior to the Tucson shootings, Giffords was viewed as one of the best the Democratic Party, in Arizona and elsewhere, had to offer. She's moderate, charismatic, and a proven fundraiser. And she had won reelection in about as tough a political environment as has existed for incumbent Democrats in a generation. As a Senate candidate, she would enjoy a national profile.

Giffords continues to rehabilitate at a facility in Houston — and there is no timetable for her return to her official duties. "There will be plenty of time to figure out what the future may hold," said C.J. Karamargin, Giffords' spokesman. "Right now, the office is focused is on the congresswoman's recovery and doing the job what the congresswoman has asked us to do — helping her constituents."

Last week, Giffords' close friend, Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.), told the crowd attending the annual Congressional Dinner in Washington, D.C., that she hoped Giffords would attend the dinner next year.

Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva (D) told The Hill newspaper in Washington on Tuesday that there is a "distinct possibility" Giffords will run "given her progress."

"I think she would be formidable," he said.

Giffords' congressional office has been operating a steady clip. It's continuing to hold, for example, weekly telephone conferences with area ranchers — and it regularly puts out news releases that quote Giffords' chief of staff, not the congresswoman herself.

The delicate subject of Giffords' running for Senate — and her capacity for doing so — has both intrigued and vexed political observers in Arizona and elsewhere.

"It's hard for me to say. It's hard for me to talk about," said Margaret Kenski, a Republican pollster in Tucson. "Before Gabby was shot, there was a lot of talk about a statewide run."

"Now," she said, "there are a lot of emotions involved. I really like her as a person, I pray for her full recovery. Unless there is a full recovery within the next couple of months — these things just take time — I think it would be very difficult."

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the party's Senate campaign arm, declined to comment on the matter.

Beyond Giffords, the name of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, a once-popular two-term governor in Arizona, has also been floated for Kyl's seat. Whether her connection to the Obama administration and her involvement in the most divisive issue in the state, immigration, would hamper her candidacy remains an open question. Her disapproval ratings run high, Kenski said.

Some Democrats were unhappy that Napolitano left with two years remaining in her term, turning the state over to Jan Brewer, a Republican.

"I think Janet Napolitano has a real record of achievement," said Andrei Cherny, chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party, who said that Giffords would also make a strong Democratic candidate. "I don't have any doubt if she came back and wanted to run, she could quickly rebuild the base of support she had for most of two decades."

Cherny maintains that the eventual nominee will run a competitive race. The state hasn't elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1988. Kenski said that Republicans currently hold an electoral advantage, while noting that independents are the fastest growing group of voters in the state.

The quickly developing Senate race may be viewed as a means to judge whether the political climate in Arizona, perhaps the most incendiary in the nation before the shootings in Tucson, has cooled at all.

"It's too soon to tell," Cherny said. "Whether Arizona citizens are going to give political leaders an incentive to work together or whether they'll reward smash-mouth politics remains to be seen."

Flake's quick entry into the field could be followed by his House colleague, Rep. Trent Franks. A wild card could be Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has not yet indicated whether he's interested in a Senate run, but who finished first in a poll recently conducted by a GOP polling firm.

Flake, 48, made his name in Congress as a deficit hawk and earmark opponent who wasn't afraid to rankle GOP House leadership. His six-term record in the House was praised by Rep. Pete Sessions, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

"Jeff's relentless fight defending taxpayer dollars against Washington waste and government growth has earned him respect in Congress and across the nation," Sessions said.

Flake, however, may face problems from the right. He has supported comprehensive immigration reform in the past and was one of the few Republicans to cross party lines and support the repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

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