Kelly’s Second Act
After losing to Gabby Giffords in 2010, Jesse Kelly is poised for victory in a special election.

Jesse Kelly


By outspending her opponent two to one, Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D., Ariz.) held onto her congressional seat in the Republican shellacking of 2010. After the horrific shooting that cut her third term short, Giffords resigned in January, and Governor Jan Brewer (R.) called for a special election on June 12 to determine Giffords’s replacement, with a primary on April 17.

Giffords christened as her heir Ron Barber, her former district director, and the Democratic voters complied with her wishes. On the Republican side, four candidates grappled for the nomination, and out of the contest emerged victorious Giffords’s former nemesis, Jesse Kelly. Considering he lost to Giffords by less than two percentage points just under two years ago, Kelly tells National Review Online, “I will be shocked if we lose this race.”

In its brief but strenuous life (from 2002 to 2012) Arizona’s 8th congressional district — which covers the Grand Canyon State’s southeastern border and stretches westward into Tucson — has been a swing district, sending the Republican Jim Kolbe to Washington, D.C., for four years before sending Giffords for six. According to one poll, reported by Roll Call, Kelly currently leads Barber by four points, 49 to 45 percent.

Kelly argues that his biography is in tune with the times: He’s a 30-year-old small businessman from Marana, Ariz., who served in the Marine Corps from 2000 to 2004. During his service, he headed a squad in the mortar section of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, and took part in the initial invasion of Iraq. He recalls that, as the troops were pushing through the sands of the Arabian Desert, their commanders told them to put away their American flags. “We were no longer allowed to fly our American flag because of some politician in Washington,” Kelly says.

But Kelly remains squarely focused on the economy. He’s felt the frustration of government regulation, he tells NRO. His father started the family business, Don Kelly Construction, in 1998, and Kelly now manages construction projects across the Southwest. He remembers one project in Ajo, Ariz., where his company was building a pipeline, and the crew was told that because of a federal environmental regulation protecting an endangered species of cactus in the area, they would need to pay around $13,000 per cactus — and that was not even to get rid of the cacti. The fee was the cost of protecting them by, say, erecting steel wire around each plant or transplanting it to another part of the desert.

The key to our economic problems, he argues, is energy. “We are sitting on a mountain of money when it comes to oil and natural gas,” Kelly says. “If we would get the radical environmentalists out of the way, we could grow our economy in ways we’d never imagine.” And he wants to end the Environmental Protection Agency as we know it: “I believe the EPA should be stripped of all regulatory power, and, if it must exist, it should exist purely as an informative body.”

Kelly also has warm words for Representative Paul Ryan (R., Wis.). “I think Paul Ryan is outstanding. His ideas for lowering the deficit, for having a simpler, flatter tax — I love them.” Still, Kelly says he doesn’t know whether he supports Ryan’s latest budget, because “I haven’t read the thing yet.”

As a veteran, Kelly is wary about cutting defense spending, as required by the Budget Control Act. The Defense Department, as “an entity run by government,” by definition is wasteful, he says. “But we cannot have defense cuts at this point in time. We are no less threatened at this time than at any point in our history. I think it’s horrible that the president and Congress are attempting to get us out of debt on the backs of our military.”

He’s similarly displeased with President Obama’s leadership in Afghanistan: “I think it’s embarrassing that our commander-in-chief tells the enemy when we’re leaving.” Nonetheless, he admits: “If we’re going to continue to let politicians fight the war instead of the generals — if we’re going to fight it to look good on CNN — then bring them home now.”

He’s dubious about any potential action against Syria. “If covert action is necessary, then we can consider it. . . . I don’t believe we should continue to trade one anti-American tyrant for another.” Yet he’s hawkish on Iran’s attempt to obtain nuclear weapons: “I think Israel is going to prevent them from doing so, and we should back them in every way if they do it.”

Kelly hopes his small-business, veteran background will be just the right fit for this district. But he’s not taking any chances. He’s challenged Barber to several debates, though, Kelly says, his opponent is refusing them. Kelly is battle-ready, and after the 2010 squeaker, battle-hardened.

— Brian Bolduc is an editorial associate for National Review.