GOP challenger Martha McSally is appealing to female voters, veterans and independents with her background of breaking barriers as a woman in the military and her measured approach to discussing issues.
District 2, which includes Tucson, Sierra Vista and Douglas, is considered a political toss-up district.
“Voters will not vote the party line,” said David Steele, a Tucson Democratic political strategist.
Barber courted the Democratic base during a special election earlier this year to fill the rest of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ term in Congress, according to Steele, but also reached out to moderates.
“Now, he and McSally are fighting over those same voters,” Steele said.
Two wildly divergent polls show it’s tough to gauge exactly how voters are leaning.
Earlier this month, a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee poll indicated Barber was up by 14 percentage points.
McSally’s campaign countered with a survey indicating the two were tied, each with 47 percent of the vote. Both polls had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
Republicans say McSally is doing the unthinkable: gaining on Barber. The National Republican Congressional Committee, spurred by a belief in McSally’s traction, recently put $330,000 into the party’s first broadcast ads.
Democrats dispute that assessment, maintaining that Barber’s campaign remains strong.
As evidence, they point to the national Democratic Party’s decision to decrease spending on television ads in the district.
National firms that track House races have kept District 2 as leaning Democrat.
McSally has support
A political newcomer, McSally, 46, has gained support in large part because of her background and energy on the campaign trail. When quizzed on her knowledge of the district or policy details, she is generally perceived as weaker than Barber.
McSally moved to Tucson in 1994 on military assignment. She was the first female Air Force pilot and squadron commander to serve in combat and retired in 2010 as a colonel after more than 20 years.
While in the military, McSally sued the Department of Defense to overturn a requirement that female personnel in Saudi Arabia wear Muslim clothing off base.
She holds two master’s degrees, taught national- security studies in Germany and served a year in Washington, D.C., as a legislative aide to Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl.
McSally’s challenges are steep. She is running in a district that has sent Democrats to Congress in the past four elections, despite having more registered Republicans than Democrats.
And now, with the redrawn districts this year, District 2’s slight Republican-voter-registration edge has shrunk.
She was behind Barber in the most recent financial reports, although Republicans say McSally’s fundraising has gained steam.
Barber brought in more than $330,000 while McSally raised nearly $270,000 from April 1 to June 30. The next quarterly financial reports are due Monday.
Yet McSally appears to be making strides with voters, including the all-important independents.
Martha Conyne, a 54-year-old University of Arizona administrative assistant, eagerly approached McSally at a recent campaign rally at a Tucson restaurant.
“I am an independent, pro-choice person who will work as hard as I can for you. I really believe in what you’re doing,” Conyne told her.
Conyne said McSally’s anti-abortion stance is not a deal breaker. She said she will vote for McSally because of her military experience, “firecracker” attitude and emphasis on the economy.
“The most important issue is economic security,” Conyne said. “Chaos ensues when people don’t have jobs and businesses can’t function.”
Among McSally’s economic proposals are cutting federal regulations and lowering taxes.
Democrats’ main attacks on McSally center on her stances on Social Security and Medicare.
McSally promises to maintain both programs for current seniors. But on Social Security, she has said she supports “gradually increasing the retirement age for younger workers” and allowing beneficiaries “to invest part of their benefits for higher returns.”
Race is hard to call
Gender issues have become key in this District 2 race.
Barber makes it a point to criticize Arizona’s new law to allow some religious employers to drop insurance coverage for women’s prescription contraceptives. He also praises the Affordable Care Act for prohibiting insurance companies from charging women for preventive care.
Some of his comments have backfired. Criticizing a lack of gender, ethnic and religious diversity among Republicans in Congress, Barber called GOP lawmakers in an interview with the Arizona Daily Star “a bunch of White guys.”
McSally said the remark was “divisive.”
McSally also cried foul over an outside Democratic group’s ad against her. The House Majority PAC, a political action committee, ran a television spot featuring cooking images and called her platform a “recipe for disaster.” McSally called it sexist.
Barber’s campaign, which did not have a role in the ad, distanced itself from it. The political action group replaced it a few days later with a different ad.
And as Election Day looms closer, political strategists continue to disagree over the outcome of the race.
“Things look good for him,” said Democratic political strategist Steele, who has donated to Barber’s campaign. “By any objective standards (McSally is) a strong candidate. ... But even before Ron worked for Gabby, he was well-known throughout southern Arizona. He’s built a reputation as honest and fair- dealing.”
“(It) is now a very close battle,” said Deputy Political and Polling Director Brock McCleary of the National Republican Congressional Committeee. “I really attribute that to Martha McSally.”