The hand-picked successor to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords trailed a Republican political novice by a few hundred votes Wednesday in one of three razor-thin congressional races in Arizona that could drag on for several days as the final ballots are tallied.
Rep. Ron Barber said he still believed outstanding ballots could tilt the race in southern Arizona's 2nd Congressional District back in his favor, but if they don't, he respects the voters' decision.
"I'm perfectly at ease and at peace with the voters' decision about who they send to Congress," Barber told The Associated Press. "And if it's not me, then I wish my opponent, if she's our new member, every success because we have to get the job done. "
Retired Air Force pilot Martha McSally seemingly came out of nowhere to take the lead late Tuesday, but there are tens of thousands of outstanding ballots yet to be counted. Barber won the early voting, while McSally dominated on Election Day.
The first woman to fly in combat and to command a fighter squadron, McSally captivated audiences looking for leadership in the moderate district that had twice rejected an ultra-conservative tea party Republican, Jesse Kelly. McSally's personal narrative, including suing the Defense Department because it required her to wear a head scarf while based in Saudi Arabia, resonated with independents and women, although Democrats called her out for her stands on social issues like abortion and gay marriage.
McSally said she believes voters supported Barber in the June special election because he was wounded with Giffords in the January 2011 Tucson mass shooting and she asked him fill out her unexpired term. But Tuesday's race was different.
"I think those factors certainly were important in the last race, whereas this race was more about who's the right person, in their own right, to represent the district," McSally said.
"People in the district, not just independents, are looking for someone who's going to represent them and do the right thing and not go to Washington and become Washington, go Washington."
Two other Arizona congressional races were also tight Wednesday, with the 9th district in a virtual tie between former Democratic state Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Republican Vernon Parker, a former mayor of the upscale Phoenix suburb of Paradise Valley.
Sinema was holding a slim lead, but thousands of votes were uncounted.
The state earned a ninth seat after the 2010 Census and was filling it for the first time on Tuesday. Republicans were furious when the state's Independent Redistricting Commission created three competitive districts, all of which remained in play Wednesday, rather than using criteria that favored the GOP.
The new Phoenix-area 9th district is a case in point. Republicans have a slight registration advantage over Democrats but both parties' totals are exceeded by independents.
In the sprawling 1st district that encompasses much of northern and eastern Arizona, rural areas south of Phoenix and the Navajo nation, Republican Jonathan Paton had the early lead on election night but lost it to former Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick when votes from the tribal areas came in. The race was close but leaning toward Kirkpatrick Wednesday.
Six other House seats in the state split 4-2 for Republicans, meaning the outcome of the three undecided races could weigh heavily on the state's political balance in congressional districts. A Democratic sweep would give the party a 5-4 edge; a Republican sweep would give the GOP a solid 7-2 advantage.
Barber said he's heading back to Washington next week to help address looming federal issues like the expiring Bush tax cuts, the farm bill and automatic spending cuts.
"There's plenty to do," he said.
For Barber, the cliffhanger 2nd district race is one that he would not have imagined just two years ago.
"I've got so much to be grateful for," Barber told the AP. "I really have got this wonderful family who have supported me over the last two years in what's been one of the most surreal experiences of my life, you know.
"I nearly died, I nearly lost my leg, and my kids and my wife and my grandkids all surrounded me with love, and our community," he said. "I just felt so supported. And then winning election to the House -- who would have imagined that I would ever do that, and I did it."