Republican candidate favored in Arizona special House election

Voters in Arizona will head to the polls Tuesday for a nationally watched special election for the seat once held by Rep. Trent FranksHarold (Trent) Trent FranksArizona New Members 2019 Cook shifts 8 House races toward Dems Freedom Caucus members see openings in leadership MORE (R), with Republicans hoping to stave off another Democratic upset ahead of the midterm elections this fall.

Republicans think the party can hang on to the solidly conservative district, which President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump watching 'very closely' as Portland braces for dueling protests WaPo calls Trump admin 'another threat' to endangered species Are Democrats turning Trump-like? MORE won by 21 points in 2016. But Republican groups have had to spend more than a million dollars on keeping the seat, which opened up in December when Franks resigned after allegedly asking a staffer to act as a surrogate mother.


Even after a string of surprise Democratic wins in recent special elections, a blue victory seems far off in the 8th District. Still, the fact that the GOP sees the race as potentially close enough to merit an infusion of cash has been seen as the latest sign of a potential Democratic wave in the midterms.

“It’s going to be a Republican victory ... but the question is, is it going to be a single-digit Republican win or a double-digit Republican win?” said Mike Noble, a GOP strategist and pollster in Arizona.

“The national narrative is going to be very important depending upon which way it goes,” Noble continued, adding that a close Republican win would indicate “that it’s going to be a tough election year for the GOP.”

The race pits former state Sen. Debbie Lesko (R) against former emergency room doctor and first-time candidate Hiral Tipirneni (D). This is the first time since 2012 that Democrats have even bothered to field a candidate for the seat, but Tipirneni has managed to capitalize on political headwinds facing the GOP to potentially put the safely red seat into play.

Polling reflects that the race could be the closest contest over the seat in decades. Lesko’s initial 14-point lead has shrunk in recent weeks, though polls have shown wildly varying results — reflecting the difficulty of polling in low-turnout special elections.

Two weeks out from the race, a poll from OHPI–ABC15 Arizona found Lesko ahead by 10 points. But other polls — one from Emerson College and another from Tipirneni’s campaign — have shown a statistical dead heat. On the eve of the election, Emerson conducted another poll that showed Lesko up by 6 points.

With days to go before the special election, both candidates made their final pitches alongside political heavy-hitters in Arizona, stressing the national implications of Tuesday’s results seven months out from the midterms.

Over the weekend, Arizona GOP Reps. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyAir Force probe finds no corroboration of sexual assault allegations against Trump pick Ex-FBI official names right-wing extremism one of the biggest security challenges for 2020 GOP senator eyes closing loophole to make domestic terrorism a federal crime MORE and David SchweikertDavid SchweikertBipartisan resolution aims to protect lawmakers amid heightened threats of violence Conservatives call on Pelosi to cancel August recess The 27 Republicans who voted with Democrats to block Trump from taking military action against Iran MORE stumped for Lesko.

Meanwhile, Tipirneni continued canvassing efforts through election day and held an election eve rally with former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly.

The Arizona race will be a tougher race for Democrats than the recent special election in Pennsylvania, where now-Rep. Conor Lamb (D) pulled off an upset win in another district that went big for Trump in 2016.

The demographics of the 8th District strongly favor Republicans — it’s overwhelmingly white, and about 45 percent of the voting-age population is 55 or older. It’s also home to Sun City, an expansive retirement community filled with older voters loyal to the GOP.

But Lamb’s victory has made Republicans cautious of the Arizona race.

The Republican National Committee spent about a million dollars on the Arizona race, according to Federal Election Commission filings. The National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund, meanwhile, have each spent six-figure sums to boost Lesko.

The Republican candidate has also received last-minute boosts from the White House and House GOP leaders. Trump recorded robocalls warning about how “illegal immigrants will pour right over your border” if Democrats take back the House, according to The Washington Post, while Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanEmbattled Juul seeks allies in Washington Ex-Parkland students criticize Kellyanne Conway Latina leaders: 'It's a women's world more than anything' MORE (Wis.) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyTrump finds consistent foil in 'Squad' Tlaib says she won't visit Israel after being treated like 'a criminal' The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy MORE (Calif.) have both fundraised for Lesko.

The Democratic National Committee has boosted Tipirneni with get-out-the-vote texts and digital ads. Other liberal outside groups, like Progressive Turnout Project and End Citizens United, have also been active in the race.

Republicans have outspent Democrats in the race, though Tipirneni has raised more money than Lesko overall since Franks resigned in December.

Early voting numbers suggest that Republicans have the edge. Of the 154,076 voters who have cast ballots so far, 49 percent are registered Republicans, 28 percent are registered Democrats and 23 percent are independents, according to figures from Arizona’s secretary of state as of Monday afternoon.

Republicans are also optimistic about the demographic picture of early voters. A little over 75 percent of early voters are age 55 and older, with the median age of those early voters at 67 — a positive sign for the GOP, since older voters trend Republicans.

Republican groups focused on early voters, since a large number of ballots in Arizona are cast by mail. The Congressional Leadership Fund — a super PAC aligned with Ryan — and GOP firm Cavalry LLC spent $65,000 on a digital ad campaign that targeted those on the permanent early voter list. Republicans who were on that list saw the ads an average of 50 times in the month leading up to the election.

Arizona Democratic strategist Andy BarrAndy Hale BarrMcConnell campaign criticized for tombstone with challenger's name McConnnell launches statewide attack ad against Democratic Senate challenger Kentucky Democrat announces challenge to GOP Rep. Andy Barr MORE said that Tipirneni would need to win over a significant number of Republican voters to win. The Democrat would also need to run up the score with independent voters — a demographic where, according to polls, Tipirneni has an advantage.

Political observers like Cook Political Report elections analyst Dave Wasserman believe that anything above 41 percent of the vote will qualify as a strong showing for Tipirneni. Strategists on both sides of the aisle argue that a GOP win that comes down to a single-digit margin would qualify as a positive sign for Democrats.

Observers say even a narrow GOP win will be a sign of trouble for Arizona Republicans. In November, Republicans in the state will be defending the seat now held by retiring Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeArpaio considering running for former sheriff job after Trump pardon Overnight Energy: Warren edges past Sanders in poll of climate-focused voters | Carbon tax shows new signs of life | Greens fuming at Trump plans for development at Bears Ears monument Carbon tax shows new signs of life in Congress MORE, as well as several swing House districts.

“We’ve activated a base of supporters and activists who didn’t have a lot to be excited about for decades,” Barr, the Democratic strategist, said.

“We built an infrastructure in an area where we desperately need to win more votes if we’re going to win statewide even if we don’t carry the district.”