Democrat Ron Barber will replace his old boss, Gabrielle Giffords, in the House after winning a special election Tuesday night, 52% to 45%, over Republican Jesse Kelly.
The race appeared to be neck-and-neck, and Kelly narrowly won more votes cast on Election Day. But Barber built his winning margin in early voting (about three quarters of the roughly 200,000 ballots cast were early votes).
This election was contested in Arizona’s Eighth District, which will effectively become the Second District in the fall due to redistricting. The new district is one that Republican presidential nominee John McCain would have won 50% to 49% in 2008, whereas the current district is one McCain would have won 52% to 46%; so Barber will run for a full term in a more favorable district. We are switching the rating of the November race from toss-up to leans Democratic.
One factor to watch: Will Republicans re-nominate Kelly, who also lost to Giffords in 2010, or go with another candidate? Retired Air Force pilot Martha McSally is running against Kelly in the Republican primary; she might give the Republicans a better shot at the seat.
Moving AZ-2 to the leans column leaves only 14 toss-ups among the 435 seats being contested in the fall. In total, the Crystal Ball rates 235 seats safe, likely or leaning for the Republicans, and rates 186 safe, likely or leaning for the Democrats. Split the toss-ups seven to seven, and one is left with 242 Republicans and 193 Democrats in the House: exactly the margin Republicans had to start this Congress.
Needless to say, there is no indication at this point that the Democrats can net the 25 seats that would give them a House majority; in fact, if Mitt Romney wins the presidency, Republicans could actually add seats to their already substantial caucus.