Republican Jesse Kelly will not make a third run for Congress, setting up a probable showdown between Martha McSally and Democrat Ron Barber in the newly drawn Congressional District 2.
Kelly made his decision official Thursday afternoon in a short statement. He declined interview requests.
"I would like to thank our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, my wife Aubrey, and our supporters for their unwavering commitment to the values that make America great," the statement said. "Looking at the results from Tuesday, we have decided to withdraw from the race for Congress in AZ-02 and to seek other opportunities."
Kelly lost to Barber by 52 percent to 45 percent in Tuesday's Congressional District 8 special election.
The 13,000-vote differential was much larger than Kelly's 4,000-vote loss to former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in 2010.
In the new congressional districts that will be used for the first time in November, the old CD8 morphs into the new CD2. It covers much of the same turf but has a much more favorable electorate for Democrats.
With Kelly out of the race, McSally becomes the overwhelming GOP front-runner against Mark Koskiniemi, an unknown making his first run for public office. He works in the Pima County Procurement Department.
McSally, a political newcomer herself who retired from the Air Force as a colonel, finished second to Kelly in the CD8 primary but actually had more votes than Kelly on election day. She has already launched her campaign and would have stayed in the race regardless of Kelly's decision.
Avoiding the rigors of a primary battle with Kelly will help McSally save her money, raise more from an expanded list of potential donors and allow her to tailor her campaign message to compete against Barber in the general election, said Sam Stone, her spokesman.
"We're looking at this as an opportunity to run straight for November," Stone said. "Financially, it's a huge advantage."
Kelly, a project manager at family-owned Don Kelly Construction, made the right decision to withdraw, said Carolyn Cox, Pima County Republican chairwoman.
"He ran a good campaign but obviously he didn't appeal to the voters," Cox said. "I think it would be a waste of his time and effort to run again."
Even if he stayed in the race, Kelly wouldn't have been able to raise money, said Jeff Rogers, chairman of the Pima County Democratic Party. Rogers said the size of the loss in CD8 demonstrates that Kelly's "extreme, right-wing" views are too far outside the mainstream for the district.
The shift from the old CD8 to CD2, eliminating much of the Republicans' registration advantage of 25,000 voters, will pose an additional challenge for McSally.
"I think Martha will have a very difficult time, but she is well aware of that," Cox said. "But she certainly is a fighter, and she's got some ideas about what she'll do."
In the Democratic CD2 primary, Barber is set to face a challenge from state Rep. Matt Heinz, who says he's staying in the race so voters have a choice for the long term. But Heinz, a Tucson doctor, doesn't have the name recognition or fundraising capabilities that Barber does, making him a heavy underdog.
Rogers said he and others are doing their best to talk Heinz out of running.
"He's an up-and-coming rising star that probably needs to understand that this is not the right time, even though he has great potential," Rogers said. "He's a pretty smart guy, and I'm hopeful he'll see the writing on the wall."
If Heinz stays in the race, it will be a reversal of fortune for Barber, who enjoyed an unopposed primary in the CD8 race while Kelly and McSally slogged through a four-way GOP primary.
"We are going to have the same advantages that he had," Stone said.
Barber's not talking about the upcoming election, choosing to focus on getting ready to start his stint in Congress.
On StarNet: Read the Star's local politics blog, Pueblo Politics, at azstarnet.com/pueblopolitics
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or email@example.com