GOP seeks to avoid Dem upset in Arizona

Republican groups are dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars into Arizona in the hopes of keeping any prospect of another Democratic upset in next month's special election at bay.

The GOP says it's confident that the party will keep control of the seat last held by ex-GOP Rep. Trent FranksHarold (Trent) Trent FranksFreedom Caucus members see openings in leadership AP Analysis: 25 state lawmakers running in 2018 have been accused of sexual misconduct Jordan weathering political storm, but headwinds remain MORE, which represents a historically Republican area with a strong core of reliable GOP voters and retirees.

Still, national Republican groups have recently committed more than a half-million dollars to retain what should be a safe seat, which President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump threatens ex-intel official's clearance, citing comments on CNN Protesters topple Confederate monument on UNC campus Man wanted for threatening to shoot Trump spotted in Maryland MORE won by 21 points in 2016. 

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The investment underscores how the uncertain political climate is forcing the GOP to spend on races that should be easy Republican wins, especially after a shocking Democratic upset in Pennsylvania’s 18th District earlier this month.

“I’m skeptical the Democrats can actually win, [but] the more activity there is on the Republican side, the more indication it is actually competitive, because the parties are the ones with the best numbers,” said Kyle Kondik, an elections analyst with the University of Virginia. “Losing Pennsylvania 18 was pretty embarrassing for Republicans. This would be worse.”

The Arizona race pits former state Sen. Debbie Lesko (R) against Democrat Hiral Tipirneni, a physician and first-time candidate, in the April 24 election. Franks resigned from the seat in December after allegedly discussing paying a staffer to carry his child.

Lesko served in the state legislature for nearly a decade, building relationships in the district. By comparison, Tipirneni is a political newcomer who will need to scramble to build up her name recognition.

But strategists on both sides of the aisle believe Tipirneni is a top-notch candidate, particularly after Democrats neglected to recruit challengers in the past two cycles.

With early voting kicking off Wednesday, Republicans are sending in reinforcements. 

The Republican National Committee jumped into the race last week, investing nearly $300,000 in canvassing efforts. And the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) is spending $170,000 on TV in a coordinated buy with Lesko’s campaign, an NRCC official confirmed to The Hill. 

Meanwhile, the Congressional Leadership Fund, a major GOP super PAC allied with Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanKrystal Ball: GOP tax cut is 'opiate of the massively privileged' Top GOP lawmaker: Tax cuts will lower projected deficit GOP super PAC seizes on Ellison abuse allegations in ads targeting Dems MORE (Wis.), is investing $100,000 in a digital and phone program.

In a normal political climate, Republicans wouldn’t have to spend any money to defend the seat. About 45 percent of the voting-age population is 55 or older; it’s overwhelmingly white; and Republicans make up 41 percent of registered voters in the district — a 17-point advantage over Democrats.

Arizona’s 8th District is also home to the expansive Sun City retirement community, which provides a loyal contingent of conservative voters. The district was also once the political stronghold of controversial former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, with Arpaio winning the district in 2016 even as he lost reelection.

Republicans maintain that they will hold the seat, even after recent losses in other GOP strongholds, because the district is filled with staunch conservatives who are less likely to flip to Democrats.

“The independents in this district are former Republicans frustrated that Republicans are not more conservative,” said Sean Noble, a GOP strategist in Arizona.

A poll conducted by Lake Research for Tipirneni’s campaign shows the Democrat trailing by 14 points. Lesko’s campaign told The Hill that those numbers aren’t far off from their own internal numbers, and that they’re comfortable with the double-digit edge, even if it’s below Trump’s 2016 margin.

Arizona Republicans are pitching the national investments as just a sign that the GOP is cautious after previous losses. They also noted that groups are getting in early because Arizona is a heavy vote-by-mail state, with ballots cast before election day. 

“National Republicans are suffering from political PTSD over the Pennsylvania loss,” said Brett Mecum, an Arizona GOP strategist. “I think they are overcompensating of getting involved in [the 8th District] to ensure victory.”

Lesko’s campaign has touted her ability to ward off previous opponents and her decadelong tenure in the legislature. She’s well known among seniors for championing legislation that allowed people to drive golf carts on the side of the road in retirement communities. 

The campaign welcomed any help from national Republican groups. 

“It’s not a question of concern,” Lesko campaign spokesman Barrett Marson said about the spending. “It’s a question of not taking our foot off the gas, and not taking anything for granted.” 

Republicans have already started to frame Tipirneni as a liberal who’s out of touch with the district.

They point to her push for a public health care option and her opposition to the recent GOP tax bill as proof that she’s too liberal for her would-be constituency. 

Recent Tipirneni criticism of the GOP tax plan immediately drew backlash from Republicans, who were quick to compare it to House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiCárdenas starts legal defense fund for sex abuse lawsuit Booming economy, kept promises, making America great — again The Hill's Morning Report — Trump showcases ICE ahead of midterm elections MORE (D-Calif.) saying $1,000 bonuses instituted by some companies after the tax plan were “crumbs.” 

Republicans will likely attempt to use that comment to tie Tipirneni to Pelosi, a longstanding GOP tactic. 

But that plan hasn’t always worked lately. Democrat Conor Lamb survived the recent Pennsylvania special election in the face of those same attacks, and Democrats feel they can win the argument on tax reform by framing the cuts as legislation that benefits the rich at the expense of the poor.

Andrew Bates, who works for the Democratic opposition research group American Bridge, specifically cited Lesko's admission that she's open to Medicare and Social Security cuts to "new enrollees in the future" as another opening for the party.

During an interview with The Hill, Tipirneni pushed back on the Lesko campaign for framing her as a run-of-the-mill liberal.

Tipirneni noted that her push for a public option echoes what was once a conservative solution put forth by then-Massachusetts Republican Gov. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyPrimary challenge to Trump? It could help him in 2020 Dem lawmaker calls Trump racist in response to 'dog' comment Former spokeswoman defends Trump calling Omarosa ‘dog’: He’s called men dogs MORE. And her campaign also made a similar argument about her positions on gun control and immigration, saying that she’s touting a pragmatic approach. 

“It’s important we redefine these things not as a matter of being Democratic or Republican, but as effective solutions to issues people are facing all across this country,” Tipirneni said. 

“These are not extreme views. They are painting this false narrative to keep what they think is a safe district. But people, I think, are smarter than that,” she said. 

In another sign she doesn't see herself as solely a party-line Democrat, her campaign said she wouldn't necessarily back Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for House Speaker if she's elected and Democrats win the House. 

"We know it's time to change the Speaker of the House, and it should probably reflect a new energy that seems to be coming into DC," campaign spokesman Jason Kimbrough said. 

"Congress' make-up could be very different come November, so Dr. Tipirneni's focus would be on who is best for West Valley constituents with protecting Social Security and Medicare being sort of a litmus test." 

Tipirneni sees the investment from Republicans as a signal that Republicans are scared and called for Democratic groups to start spending on the race as well. 

“This is not the impossible dream by any stretch. This is a real possibility. If they are going to invest, invest now, because ballots are dropping tomorrow,” Tipirneni said. “Every seat is worth investing in.”

Other Democrats hope a strong showing here could send a signal ahead of competitive races in the fall.  

“There’s plenty of leeway for wingnut nutjobbery in this area,” said Democratic strategist Andy BarrGarland (Andy) Hale BarrIt’s possible to protect national security without jeopardizing the economy Video shows GOP donor confronting Dem staffer on camera Conservative group pledges .5 million for 12 House GOP candidates MORE, referencing the district’s past support for Arpaio. “For us to be competitive at all here shows just how tainted the Republican brand is.”

--Updated on March 29