TUCSON, Ariz. – Gabrielle Giffords scored a resounding victory Tuesday, with southern Arizona voters opting for a moderate Democrat over Randy Graf, a conservative Republican, to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe.
With 94 percent of the precincts reporting, Giffords had 108,782 votes, or 54 percent, to Graf's 84,245 votes, or nearly 42 percent, in the battle for the 8th Congressional District seat.
Libertarian David Nolan had 3,797 votes and independent Jay Quick had 3,467 votes — each less than 2 percent of the vote.
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Giffords even led in Cochise County, which borders Mexico and was considered a stronghold for the GOP candidate.
Giffords led in polls and fundraising throughout the campaign, portraying herself as a moderate or centrist more in line with Kolbe, a Republican who has represented the district for 22 years. Kolbe gave Giffords a congratulatory hug as she addressed her elated supporters Tuesday night.
Giffords focused on the war in Iraq, a tough but comprehensive border security and immigration reform program, health coverage for uninsured Americans and the need for change in Washington.
She will join a reconfigured Arizona House delegation that, for the first time since 1994, will be evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. Former Tempe Mayor Harry Mitchell, a Democrat, scored an upset victory over incumbent Republican Rep. J.D. Hayworth on Tuesday.
Giffords paid homage to her predecessors, including the late Rep. Morris K. Udall and former Rep. Jim McNulty, whom Kolbe defeated to start his 11-term tenure in the House, saying Arizona has had a history of people with "the guts to tackle the hard problems and the chutzpah to be able to stand up and say it like it is."
A disappointed Graf said, "I'm proud of the campaign that we ran, and the message which we brought. I still think it's the right one."
Graf concentrated on securing the porous border with Mexico and an end to illegal immigration, a hot topic among the district's residents. Yet Graf's national party turned its back on him — trying to defeat him in the primary — and Kolbe disavowed his candidacy.
He said Kolbe had been present at his rally earlier in the evening, and that "we shook hands." But he added, "There was no question that we didn't get support from him early in the campaign." Kolbe had declined to endorse Graf because of philosophical differences.
In Tucson, teacher Harry Salmen, who identified himself as a Democrat, said the border was most important for him, and he voted for Giffords because "I think she'll have a better chance of compromising, instead of using scare tactics.
"The other side makes it seem like if you don't lock up the borders, terrorists are going to come over and the country's going to go downhill. I don't go along with that. I want someone that I think is more rational."
Tim Gleeson, a pharmacy technician, said he voted for Graf with the key issues being the economy "and maybe the Republican stance on the border issues and immigration."
Graf defeated four other GOP challengers in September to win the party's nomination, even though the National Republican Congressional Committee broke its normal neutrality and pumped more than $122,000 into TV ads for one of Graf's opponents.
Kolbe declined to endorse Graf, a former golf pro and state representative, after the victory because of philosophical differences.
Graf's campaign banked on attracting conservatives and independents irate over continued illegal border crossings, and drew strong support from ranchers and in rural areas hard-hit by the continued flow of undocumented workers into the state, for years the busiest illegal entry point on the U.S.-Mexico frontier.
Giffords, a former state senator, backed more enforcement on the border but also supported a guest-worker program and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country.
Fred Solop, a Northern Arizona University political science professor, last month attributed Giffords' continued lead in various polls to appearing to take "a moderate and reasonable approach" to issues including the war in Iraq and uneasiness among the electorate over terrorism, the economy and education.