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Updated Jun 12, 2012, 10:26 pm
Democrat Ron Barber won the special election in Arizona's 8th Congressional District on Tuesday night, handily beating Republican Jesse Kelly, who conceded the race that picked a successor to Gabrielle Giffords.
With 100 percent of precincts counted, Barber edged out Kelly by seven percent: 101,559 to 88,569.
The loss marks Kelly's second failure to win the CD 8 seat in under two years. He lost to Giffords by 4,000 votes in 2010.
See final results below
"This is not Gabby's seat. This is not my seat. This is your seat," Barber told 300 Democrats gathered at the University Marriott.
"This seat belongs to the people of Southern Arizona," he said.
Declaring that it's "time to get to work," Barber said "I promise to work as hard as Mo Udall, as Jim Kolbe, as Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords to honor that trust."
Giffords stood at Barber's side as he gave his victory speech just before 10 p.m., smiling at her former district director.
Moments before, Kelly conceded the race, telling supporters at the Viscount Suites hotel that statistically it was unlikely he could overcome the Democrat's lead. He said he called earlier to congratulate Barber.
"I wouldn't have done a thing differently," Kelly said. "We came into this race with a plan ... the voters of Southern Arizona have chosen something different and that's fine."
Kelly gave thanks to his family and friends, and announced that he would "most likely" run again in the fall.
"This is starting to look insurmountable for Kelly," said Pima County Democratic Party chairman Jeff Rogers earlier in the evening, as the first returns were announced.
With 195,000 votes tabulated and 100 percent of precincts reporting, Barber had a seven-point lead over Kelly. Just 3,600 early ballots, dropped off Tuesday, remain to be verified and counted in Pima County.
Kelly actually narrowly edged Barber on ballots that were cast on election day, 24,014-22,950. But voting had been underway for a month, and Barber bulldozed Kelly in early balloting, 78,609-64,555.
Overall, the Green Party's Charlie Manolakis received 4,482 votes.
Kelly won in Cochise County, and in the sliver of Pinal County that lies within CD 8. He got 12,970 votes in Cochise to Barber's 10,913, and a 2,943-2,387 edge in Pinal.
Barber easily won among the Santa Cruz County voters in CD 8, with 1,060 to Kelly's 773 votes.
But it was the 87,199-71,883 margin in Pima County that carried the night for the 66-year-old Democrat.
Barber said he appreciated the "vote of confidence" in an interview as the hotel ballroom emptied out.
Barber said he didn't expect his winning margin to be so large. But victory will be short-lived: Barber will serve out the final six months of Giffords' term, while an election cycle for the next term is already underway.
The Democrat said he was surprised that the border and immigration didn't play as large a role in the election as in the 2010 race.
"That was still an issue when I talked to people," but it wasn't played up in the media, he said.
People near the border in the Douglas area "feel endangered," he said.
Barber said he'd work to increase border security in the Tucson Sector, and "fix this broken immigration system" that increases human smuggling.
Candidates had same opponent: Kelly '10
The special election was a race fraught with contradictions and irony, and featured candidates more concerned about telling voters who they aren't, rather than who they are.
The two candidates have little in common: Kelly's a tall young man with an brash demeanor and a forceful voice; Barber's a grandfatherly type who speaks quietly and considers his words carefully.
But they agreed on one thing: they'd be running against the same opponent.
Kelly spent the campaign running against his former incarnation as a firebrand Tea Party-type, bent on slashing the budget as quickly as he could cut corporate taxes. Mostly, he did that by refusing to talk policy specifics, instead repeating a campaign mantra on a tape loop. It was something about "lower taxes, more jobs, and lower gas prices by using American energy." In fact, it didn't much matter what the question was, that was the answer.
Barber's campaign also was based on running against Kelly's former incarnation as a firebrand Tea Partier. Mostly, he did that by repeating Kelly's statements back at him—the statements about cutting Social Security and Medicare that led to the Republican's defeat in 2010.
Kelly was the candidate who served a four-year stint in the Marines, serving as a corporal and putting in an eight-month tour in Iraq. Yet in 2012, Kelly backed away from the emphasis that he'd placed on his service in the race against Giffords.
Barber was the candidate who actually took bullets while serving his country. Not in a combat zone, but while standing outside a Safeway store in Northwest Tucson on a bright Saturday morning in 2011.
Barber's campaign barely mentioned, much less emphasized, the Jan. 8 shooting, but that incident overshadowed the entire special election.
The media hype and drawn-out decision by Giffords to resign, the lack of an immediate annointed candidate, and Barber's eventual emergence as the Democrat who gained his former boss' blessing—the 2011 shootings were never far from the minds of voters as the special election played out.
Out of the gate, Barber presented himself as a backer of the policies that Giffords promoted. In an interview with TucsonSentinel.com the day he declared his candidacy, he said he was "right alongside with her" in "helping shape" policies.
After the Republicans used a line from that interview in commercials bashing him, Barber began talking up his differences with Giffords, especially on health care reform.
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While Barber tried to present himself as a candidate in his own right, the Republicans criticized him as a "caretaker" who would be a "rubber-stamp" for liberal Democratic proposals.
A little over a month after he announced his candidacy in CD8, Barber said he'd run again in the fall, in the newly drawn CD2. The other Democratic candidates dropped out, except state Rep. Matt Heinz, who stayed in the fall race while allowing Barber to run unopposed in the CD8 primary.
On the Republican side, Kelly beat out a field of three others in the primary. Only former Air Force pilot Martha McSally, who ran a strong second in the race, filed to run again in the fall GOP primary in CD2.
Barber, while knocking Kelly for avoiding any details when talking about policies, was sometimes equally vague.
He didn't add an "Issues" page to his campaign website until after the Republicans chose a candidate, allowing him to tailor his presentation to his opponent.
Barber avoided talking specifics about shoring up Social Security, saying he'd work toward a "bi-partisan" solution.
Barber accused Kelly of trying to "pull the wool over the eyes of the voters" in moving away from his previous calls to end the entitlement programs.
In the second of two debates among the CD8 candidates, Kelly said participation should be optional.
"This is not Europe, this is not Russia. This is not some crazy place where the government allows us to do things," he said.
Although Kelly said on the night of the April primary election that he hadn't changed any part of his platform since 2010, calls to privatize Social Security quickly vanished from his website, replaced by calls to protect benefits for seniors.
In 2010, Kelly lost to Giffords by just 4,000 votes. Barber tripled that margin, raising questions about Kelly's political future.
The Republican said he'd announce within days whether he'd continue his campaign for the CD2 seat or drop out in favor of McSally.
"We are blessed by God to live in a country where voters get exactly what they want," Kelly told supporters. "They have spoken here and we respect that."
Barber told those gathered at the Democratic Party party that "life takes unexpected turns."
"A year ago I never dreamt that I'd be standing here, thanking you for your support," he said.
Voters rejected extreme politics, Barber said.
"We say yes to working across party lines to secure a strong future for Arizona. We say yes to common ground, to common sense and to common decency," he said.
Precincts reporting: 100%
Reporter Ryan Kelly and News Editor Janet Rose Jackman contributed to this story.