In Arizona’s special election, Republican Debbie Lesko was the winner on Tuesday in a contest that was closely watched by both Republicans and Democrats as a barometer of their respective strengths in advance of the November midterm election. While Lesko’s opponent, Democrat Hiral Tipirneni, gave a strong showing and bolstered her party’s argument that there is enthusiasm for its candidates nationwide, she could not best the GOP. However, the election results showed that Democrats did eat away at support for the GOP locally. Lesko received  82,294 votes (52.9 percent), while Tipirneni received 73,188 (47.1 percent). Before midnight, this count was likely the majority of the early and mail-in votes cast before Tuesday. On Wednesday, the tally of ballots cast on election day is due. While media observers called the race for Lesko, Tipirneni refused to concede.

Lesko was favored favored to win but that does not mean that the national GOP was taking any chances. The national Republican party contributed more than $1 million to her campaign. Tipirneni presented as an aggressive Democrat and political tyro who was seeking to win an upset victory in an open seat in the House of Representatives that has been held by Republicans since the beginning of the 1980s. The district had been locked up by former Rep. Trent Franks, who resigned in December. The 8th Congressional District of Arizona has been solidly Republican, bolstered by conservative retirees and as borne out by polls. In 2016, for example, Franks defeated Democrat Mark Salazar and write-in candidate Joe DeVivo. Franks won 68.5 percent of the vote (204,942), while Salazar won 31.4 percent (93,954).


Numerous media outlets and analysts have seen the race as a bellwether for the coming mid-term election. If the Republican wins by less than 10 percentage points, some will see it a sign of significant gains for Democrats in the fall.

A former state senator, Debbie Lesko faced  Tipirneni -- a physician and cancer research advocate. The latter was seeking to ride Democrats’ momentum that was gained by wins in Pennsylvania and Alabama, where Democrats got out opponents of President Donald Trump’s policies.

As the polls closed at 7 p.m. local time, Republicans dominated early voting in Phoenix’s northern and western suburbs. The majority of voters in the district -- over 150,000 — cast their ballots early, long before the polls closed. The issue remains the margin of victory for Lesko and what it may tell about the coming mid-term election and Republican prospects to hold on to the House of Representatives and the Senate. 

Ruby red Eighth Congressional District

A political veteran, Lesko represented segments of the 8th Congressional District since 2009. She enjoys support from retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) who has donated serious cash to her campaign, as did the national Republican party. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy flew in for a fundraiser recently. Lesko is the favorite to replace Franks because the GOP has a 17-percentage-point registration lead in the district. Recent polling data suggests that Lesko could win by 10 percentage points, or that Tipirneni could win by 1. As an indication of demographic and political change, a recent poll of district voters by Emerson College showed that Tipirneni leading Lesko by a 46-45 margin. Two previous public polls showed Lesko leading by double digits. Of concern to the GOP, early polling in the Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District showed the Republican leading, too. Emerson College was the first poll that showed that the eventual winner, Conor Lamb, was taking the lead.

Arizona’s 8th Congressional District is comprised by conservative suburbs in the north and west quadrants of Phoenix. The district voted for Trump in 2016 by a 21 percent margin, compared to 20 points in Pennsylvania’s 18th district. According to Cook Political Report Partisan Voting Index, Arizona’s 8th district rated R+13 (13 points more Republican than the national average), while Pennsylvania’s 18th was R+11. A significant difference between the two districts, which is in the GOP’s favor, is that the 17-point advantage in party registration. Also, while Pennsylvania does not display high levels of early voting, it is a factor in Arizona. That fact has led Cook’s to judge that Lesko would win. 

A stark contrast between candidates

Recently describing her views while attacking Tipirneni, Lesko said she opposes Tipirneni’s plan to expand government-run health care. At the same time, Lesko said she supports Trump’s border wall and criticized Tipirneni for wanting to block the initiative. 

Tipirneni wants a government health plan that would allow person who have yet to reach retirement age to access Medicare, ostensibly to spark competition in health care markets. While Tipirneni opposes the border wall, she would increase enforcement through technology and employing more Border Patrol agents. Referring to trends that show that the fastest growing segment of immigrants in the U.S. illegally overstayed visas, Tipirneni said that a border wall is not the answer. According to a 2017 Department of Homeland Security report, the biggest flow of illegal immigration into the U.S. shifted away from the southwest border and into the air and sea ports, where more than 54 million visitors entered in 2016: nearly 630,000 of them did not leave the country as required by law. 

The national Democratic party has largely stayed out of the fray. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did not make any TV ad buys, even though the Democratic National Committee invested $175,000 in the district through fundraising, get-out-the-vote work and other efforts. A unit of the progressive Working Families Party spent $100,000 to help Tipirneni. The Progressive Turnout Project spent $33,000 on ground operations. People for the American Way spent $17,000 in the race. The AAPI Victory Fund, a group that represents Asian American and Pacific Islander voters, spent $5,000 to help Tipirneni, who is an immigrant from India. Tipirneni campaigned alongside former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, in Sun City. “The time has come for Americans to elect a new Congress with the courage to stand up to the gun lobby,” Giffords tweeted. Tipirneni “is exactly the kind of strong woman Arizonans need representing them in Washington.” A signal of Democrats’ reluctance to spend big on the race is that only two congressmen have represented the district since 1977 and Democrats have not bothered to put a candidate on the ballot since 2012.

However, national Republican groups are spending big to back Lesko, pouring $1 million into the suburban Phoenix district to ensure her victory. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy flew in for a fundraiser last week. Lesko has welcomed Republican funding. The Republican National Committee spent $527,000 on Lesko. The National Republican Congressional Committee spent $383,000. And the Congressional Leadership Fund, linked to House Speaker Paul Ryan, spent $102,000 on the race.

There have been eight federal special elections across the country since the 2016 elections in which Democrats have had some victories. Democrats won an Alabama Senate race and a Pennsylvania House race, even though Trump won Alabama by 28 percentage points and won the Pennsylvania district by nearly 20 percentage points. In California, Democrats won a race they had easily won in 2016 as well, suggesting an advantage for the party of incumbents.

Five other special elections pulled the lever for Republicans but by smaller percentages than in the recent past. In Kansas, Mike Estes won a special election by 7 percentage points. In contrast, his predecessor, Mike Pompeo (who quit the House to join the Trump administration) won the same seat by 32 points in 2016. In Georgia, Montana, and South Carolina there were similar outcomes. A third-party candidate splintered GOP votes in Utah.  

According to an analysis by Real Clear Politics, nearly half of the early ballots received by last Wednesday came from registered Republicans. By comparison, 28 percent came from Democrats. The rest came from independents and members of other parties. If everyone voted according to party affiliation, Democrat Tipirneni would need the support of almost 90 percent of independents to match Lesko's support among Republicans. Democrats are expecting Republicans to vote for the Democrat in this election under the supposition of presumed opposition to Trump. The above analysis would suggest that if Tipirneni can garner 20 percent of Republicans and win independents by just 10 percentage points, she could lose 10 percent of her party's voters and still be within 5 percentage points of Lesko.

However, Lesko was in the lead on Tuesday when unofficial results were released. 



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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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