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 TrumpHow to stand out in the crowd: Kirsten Gillibrand needs to find her niche Countdown clock is on for Mueller conclusions Omar: White supremacist attacks are rising because Trump publicly says 'Islam hates us' 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 McSallyArpaio's wife recovering after rattlesnake bite in Arizona Former astronaut running for Senate in Arizona returns money from paid speech in UAE The Hill's Morning Report — Washington readies for Mueller end game MORE and David SchweikertDavid SchweikertOn The Money: Trump trade chief sees tough work ahead on China | Cohen offers gripping testimony | Tells lawmakers Trump inflated assets | Deduction cap could hit 11 million taxpayers | Senate confirms top IRS lawyer Trump trade chief warns of tough work ahead on China deal The Hill's 12:30 Report: Sanders set to shake up 2020 race 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 RyanFormer Dem candidate says he faced cultural barriers on the campaign trail because he is working-class Former House candidate and ex-ironworker says there is 'buyer's remorse' for Trump in Midwest Head of top hedge fund association to step down MORE (Wis.) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyHouse leaders need to modernize Congress for the sake of America Overnight Energy: McConnell tees up vote on Green New Deal | Centrist Dems pitch alternative to plan | House Republican likens Green New Deal to genocide | Coca-Cola reveals it uses 3M tons of plastic every year House GOP lawmaker says Green New Deal is like genocide 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 BarrGarland (Andy) Hale BarrKentucky radio host: Schumer recruit can't beat McConnell On The Money: Wells Fargo chief gets grilling | GOP, Pence discuss plan to defeat Dem emergency resolution | House chair sees '50-50' chance of passing Dem budget | Trump faces pressure over Boeing Campaign to draft Democratic challenger to McConnell starts raising funds 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 FlakeTrump's attacks on McCain exacerbate tensions with Senate GOP Schumer to introduce bill naming Senate office building after McCain amid Trump uproar Trump keeps tight grip on GOP 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.”