Republicans held on to a contested Arizona House seat in Tuesday’s special election, sparing the party yet another humiliating defeat in once-safe GOP territory.
Republican Debbie Lesko, 59, a conservative former state senator, bested Democrat Hiral Tipirneni, 50, a health care advocate and physician, in a surprisingly competitive race to represent Arizona’s 8th Congressional District.
Lesko received 52.6 percent of the vote, compared with 47.4 percent for Tipirneni.
Although Donald Trump won the suburban Phoenix district by 21 percentage points in 2016, the party had to fight to hold on to it this time. Three national Republican organs ― the National Republican Congressional Committee, the Republican National Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) ― together spent more than $1.2 million on Lesko’s behalf.
The outcome likely provides limited comfort to Republican strategists confronted with still more evidence that the party is due for a reckoning in November.
“This district is no longer an extremely safe Republican district,” said Gina Woodall, a politics expert at Arizona State University. “You can’t beat the proportion of Republican voters or senior citizens who vote regularly in this district. The fact that the GOP still had to work for it is ominous for November.”
The demographics of Arizona’s 8th District, which encompasses a part of Maricopa County known as the West Valley, fundamentally favor Republicans. Over 84 percent of residents are white, and nearly 22 percent are aged 65 or older ― both groups that generally lean Republican.
Prior to his resignation in December, Rep. Trent Franks (R) routinely won re-election by more than 30 percentage points. (Franks left Congress in December after allegedly offering a female aide $5 million to serve as a surrogate for him and his wife.)
Still, Tipirneni, who ran as a defender of Social Security and Medicare, public education and universal health care, proved a prodigious fundraiser, outpacing Lesko by about $180,000 as of the beginning of April. She also limited how much she spoke about Trump on the campaign trail, opting instead to decry overall Republican policies like the tax legislation, which she called “atrocious.”
Despite describing herself as a “moderate Democrat” who would use a “data-driven” approach to governing, Tipirneni proposed allowing people of all ages to buy into the Medicare system. (She also sought to grant Medicaid beneficiaries the opportunity to purchase private coverage.)
The stance won Tipirneni accolades on the left, but prompted Republicans to inaccurately label her an advocate for single-payer health care, in which the federal government covers all Americans as part of one insurance plan.
“Hiral Tipirneni will be the first of many single-payer supporters to suffer defeat this year,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Jesse Hunt predicted on Monday.
Some public polls suggested that Tipirneni might overcome the district’s strong conservative bent.
Ultimately though, the national Republican infrastructure helped Lesko close the gap with Tipirneni. Trump recorded a robocall for Lesko, and several congressional leaders traveled to the district to rally voters and raise money.
The GOP proved especially adept at taking advantage of Arizona’s capacious voting rules, which allowed early voting in person or by mail beginning on March 28.
By targeting early and banking votes for Debbie Lesko, we were able to make sure there wasn’t an enthusiasm gap. Mike Duncan, GOP strategist
The Ryan-aligned super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, contracted with local GOP consulting firm Calvary LLC, which bombarded a group of 70,000 to 100,000 voters on Arizona’s permanent absentee voter list with digital advertisements encouraging them to vote for Lesko. The ads also reminded voters to submit their mail-in ballots.
“By targeting early and banking votes for Debbie Lesko, we were able to make sure there wasn’t an enthusiasm gap,” said Mike Duncan, a partner at Calvary LLC.
Calvary’s handiwork appeared to show in the makeup of early voters. Of more than 154,000 ballots already cast by the end of the day on Monday, 49 percent of voters were registered Republicans, compared with 28 percent who were Democrats and 23 percent who were independents. The median age of the people who have already voted is 67.
National Democrats never matched the GOP’s commitment to the district, apparently viewing it as too much of a reach. The Democratic National Committee contributed indirectly through a $75,000 innovation grant to the state party, as well as by raising $85,000 for Tipirneni and providing her campaign $17,000 in in-kind services.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which helps elect Democrats to the House, did not contribute any cash to Tipirneni’s campaign.
The biggest national player to step in on Tipirneni’s behalf was the Working Families Party, a national progressive group active in state and local races. The Working Families Party invested $100,000 in two ads featuring Ady Barkan, an ALS-stricken activist, who has launched a campaign to hold Republicans accountable for the GOP tax cuts. Barkan and the Working Families Party maintain that the cuts, which added $1.5 trillion to the national debt, have created the political impetus for Republicans to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
“There is no such a thing as a safe Republican seat this year,” Barkan said in a statement late Tuesday night. “Dr. Hiral Tipirneni overcame the odds to come within striking distance of victory in a deep red district, because the Republicans put their donors’ greed ahead of the health of families like mine.”
For Arizona Democrats, Tipirneni’s bid was a useful vehicle to lay the groundwork for long-term gains in the state. The state party erected a field office and dedicated staffers to assisting Tipirneni, enabling it to identify and engage voters as it looks to races where Democrats enjoy more favorable odds.
Democrats have a serious shot in November of flipping the Arizona state Senate, where the GOP has a four-seat edge. The party plans to target at least six GOP-held state Senate seats, and has fielded promising candidates for an open U.S. Senate seat as well, including Rep. Kyrsten Sinema and Deedra Abboud, an attorney and Muslim civil rights advocate.
The same factors that propelled Tipirneni’s bid are likely to remain in play in November. Tipirneni benefited from a highly energized Democratic electorate, led by suburban women, many of whom are active in the countless “Resistance” groups that have popped up in the wake of Trump’s election.
Many of the Democratic activists had already mobilized against a private school voucher bill that Lesko helped shepherd into law. Grassroots resistance to the measure has won voters the opportunity to decide its fate on the November ballot, suggesting it could help Democrats running then as well.
A closely related fight over teacher pay and public school funding has also generated activism that redounded to Tipirneni’s benefit and could well continue through the fall. Arizona teachers are due to hold a statewide walkout on Thursday as part of an ongoing movement to protest what they contend is low pay and inadequate school funding.
Ann Teeters Johnson, a retiree from Sun City West and member of the grassroots group Rogue Democratic Women, described an excitement among the region’s Democrats that she had never seen before.
The race has “already done some magic” for local Democrats, she said. “Because there is a primary and an election again so soon, I think it would carry over.”
Kevin Robillard contributed reporting.