How Gabby Giffords Is Shaking Up a Competitive Congressional Race

(Elaine Thompson/AP Photo)

Gabby Giffords isn't running for office, but when it comes to the race for the Congressional seat she once held, you'd almost think she's the one on the ballot.

The contest for Arizona's 2nd congressional district includes Democratic Rep. Ron Barber, Giffords' former district director, against Republican Martha McSally, a former Air Force colonel. Lately, Giffords has stepped squarely into the spotlight, appearing in campaign ads, becoming a talking point in debates and, at times, overshadowing the candidates themselves.

The latest sparks flew last week when the two candidates met for their first debate on the heels of the release of a new ad from the National Republican Congressional Committee's independent expenditure committee that featured images of Giffords.

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"Gabby Giffords fought for border security and voted against Nancy Pelosi," the narrator in "Follower" says. "Ron Barber voted for Pelosi and followed Pelosi's lead, voting against strengthening our border."

Giffords was evidently not pleased with the portrayal.

"No organization or person - no matter which party they say they represent - should think they can come to Southern Arizona and pretend to speak for me," the former congresswoman said in a statement. "I work hard to speak, but it's my voice. So take it from me: Ron is an independent leader in Congress, and no one will fight harder for our community."

And Giffords didn't stop there. Her group Americans for Responsible Solutions released a counter-ad the following day featuring the former congresswoman, who was shot by a gunman in 2011 and resigned from the House of Representatives a year later. In "Fight For Us" Giffords says looking directly into the camera, "We expect our leaders to fight for us, not the special interests. Ron Barber is independent, he's courageous, and most of all he's Arizona through and through."

The ad will air on broadcast, cable, and online for at least two weeks and is backed by what a spokesperson for Giffords' group called a "strong six-figure buy."

The recent skirmish didn't come out of nowhere.

Last month, Americans for Responsible Solutions released three television ads taking McSally to task for her views on background checks for firearm purchases. In one of the ads titled, "Stalker Gap," a Tucson resident named Vicki tearfully discusses her husband and daughter's murder at the hands of her daughter's former boyfriend. A narrator chimes in, "Martha McSally opposes making it harder for stalkers to get a gun."

"I don't think she really understands how important that is to a lot of women," Vicki says in closing.

The specific attack from Giffords' gun control group focused on McSally's objection to closing a loophole that allows individuals convicted of misdemeanors for stalking to buy guns. McSally aides immediately expressed outrage, saying they found the accusation particularly shocking because McSally herself had been a victim of stalking.

"For an outside group to tie me to the tragic occurrence of a stalker killing his victim is not only personally offensive, it's degrading to all women and victims who have experienced this pain," McSally said. "These false and malicious ads are being run by Congressman Barber's political allies, and for him to remain silent in their wake is damning…He needs to denounce these degrading ads and demand they be pulled down."

According to her campaign, a stalker broke into McSally's car and repeatedly trespassed in her apartment building. The McSally campaign did not elaborate on the incident.

The controversy about the ad spilled over into last week's debate between the two candidates.

"You have an opportunity now tonight to denounce that ad and apologize," McSallly said during a particularly heated exchange. "Do you believe that that ad was wrong, Ron?"

Barber refused: "That ad was not run by me, and I'm not going to talk about an ad that I didn't sponsor."

Giffords and Americans for Responsible Solutions have received criticism from other quarters, too.

An editorial last month in the Arizona Republic, titled "Vile ad bounces off McSally, sticks to Gabby Giffords," referred to the ad as a "nasty piece of work" and "demagoguery in heart-rending tones."

"The ad waves the bloody shirt. Takes the tragic killing of two innocents and drops it at McSally's feet, as if she were responsible. A murder indictment implied," the editorial board wrote, adding: "Perhaps the Tucson shooting changed Gabby Giffords."

Mark Prentice, a spokesman for Americans for Responsible Solutions, told ABC News that Giffords had no plans to campaign alongside Barber between now and Election Day, but wouldn't rule out additional ads.