In her first election cycle since leaving office and starting a gun-control PAC, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is proving she's not simply looking to preserve her legacy.
Three weeks after Politico said Giffords had gotten "mean" and The Arizona Republic accused her super PAC of "marring" her reputation with attack ads, Giffords and Americans for Responsible Solutions are conducting a nine-state tour, meeting with advocacy groups and public officials about gun-control issues that affect women. Giffords has been a major presence in the race for Arizona's 2nd District, where the group's negative ads have both drawn criticism and energized supporters.
The tour, which runs through Oct. 22, is more focused on awareness and policy than on campaigns, but will take Giffords to states where Americans for Responsible Solutions has made endorsements. And supporters say that between the tour, the group's ads, and Giffords pushing back against attempts by Republicans to align themselves with her, Giffords can be expected to be aggressive in those races.
"Our approach has been direct," said Pia Carusone, executive director of Americans for Responsible Solutions. "There's no point in spending this money if we're not going to be forthright and direct about these issues. These are often deadly serious issues."
Jeff Rogers, a former chairman of the Pima County Democratic Party, said that based on the media's reactions to the group's ads, it seems like "people are putting a halo over her," and didn't expect Giffords to play hardball in campaigns.
But they might be forgetting that Giffords ran aggressive campaigns when running for office, before the 2011 shooting that led her to leave Congress. For example, Giffords repeatedly ran negative ads on Social Security in 2010, saying her opponent "wants to gamble your retirement in the stock market."
"She was one of the most savvy, tough campaigners I've seen in my life," Rogers said. "Don't forget that in that 2010 wave, she survived in a very close district."
Giffords made that clear last month, when Americans for Responsible Solutions ran an ad in Arizona's 2nd District in and around Tucson, saying Democratic Rep. Ron Barber's opponent, Martha McSally, "opposes making it harder for stalkers to get a gun" and featuring a crying woman whose daughter was murdered. McSally responded that she had always supported a measure stopping stalkers from buying guns—and that she had been the victim of stalking. Americans for Responsible Solutions soon took the ad down, but insisted it was because McSally had never actually supported the measure and had been prompted to change her position—not because of any negative press over the ad.
Ann-Eve Pedersen, a nonprofit executive who has endorsed Barber, said the media's reaction to the ad suggested an expectation that Giffords would campaign "in a demure fashion."
"But what does she have to gain by keeping her favorability ratings up?" Pedersen asked, saying Giffords could either stay out of the mud or make a real impact in top House races. (Carusone, meanwhile, said the group has gotten more positive feedback than negative about the ad, and that the overall reaction was not as surprised at the group's aggressiveness as The Republic was.)
If the ad against McSally hadn't proven that Giffords would be assertive with her influence in the race, an exchange two weeks later with the National Republican Congressional Committee would. The NRCC ran a TV ad implying McSally was more similar to Giffords than Barber is—despite Giffords's support for Barber. Giffords quickly denounced the ad in a statement, saying, "I work hard to speak, but it's my voice." Americans for Responsible Solutions soon had a 60-second TV ad narrated by Giffords praising Barber.
McSally and others have still tried to use Americans for Responsible Solutions ads against the group. McSally made it a topic in a debate, calling on Barber to denounce the stalker-gap ad. And in New Hampshire, where Americans for Responsible Solutions is backing Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, Republican Frank Guinta also brought up the group's attack ads in a debate. Shea-Porter flatly denied any association with the ads.
But negative reactions to campaign ads aren't surprising, and if Giffords's goal is to make an impact on gun-control issues, it helps that she isn't afraid to be forceful, Pedersen said.
"James Brady has passed away," she said, "and we need someone to be the future face on gun issues."
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Jack Fitzpatrick is a staff correspondent at National Journal. He has previously written for USA TODAY, NBCNews.com, Slate, The Arizona Republic and other newspapers and websites. He graduated from Arizona State University with a master's degree in mass communication and a bachelor's degree in journalism.