Democrat Ron Barber triumphed in a special election in a Republican-heavy Arizona congressional district, but political observers said that it likely portends little or nothing about the outcome of this fall's battle for control of the House.
That didn't stop either party from posting rival claims: Democrats cast the race as a referendum on Republican proposals for Social Security and Medicare. Republicans stressed that Barber's victory came after he emphasized his differences with President Obama on health care and other issues.
There is some truth in both claims. Yet it's also the case that nowhere else this November will former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords be a central figure, successfully bequeathing to a former aide the seat she held when she was shot in the head in a 2011 assassination attempt.
Appearing with Giffords at a Tucson hotel after his victory Tuesday night, Barber told supporters, "Life takes unexpected turns, and here we are, thanks to you." Giffords hugged Barber and kissed his forehead as he won the vacated House seat for the balance of her term.
With 100 percent of the precincts reporting, Barber won about 52 percent of the vote, while Republican Jesse Kelly had 46 percent.
"Special elections sometimes mean something but not very often," said Steve Elmendorf, who was the top aide to then-House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt at a time when the party struggled unsuccessfully to take control of the House away from Republicans.
"They happen in the middle of years. They're generally low turnout. Whoever wins always makes a big deal about what it means. But I think, looking back, it's hard to find examples where they mean anything."
David Winston, a Republican pollster who worked under then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, said that while there are some special elections that may indicate a broader trend, "you have to be very careful in terms of looking at the context and dynamic of the race."
Democrats test-marketed commercials that accused Kelly of wanting to cut taxes for millionaires and phase out Social Security and Medicare. Barber, on those issues, promised "no cuts, no way" to either program.
The GOP ran ads that said Barber backed the health care law that Obama won from Congress in 2010 and includes cuts totaling $500 billion from Medicare. "Rubber stamp Ron Barber," they called him, a ready vote for Obama's policies.
Their commercials showed pictures of Barber, Obama and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, a linkage meant to be unflattering, and a reminder of a tactic from the Democrats' loss of House control in 2010.