Republican Debbie Lesko is projected to win Arizona’s nationally watched special election, fending off a strong challenge from Democrats who have been overperforming in deep-red seats.
Lesko, a former state senator, defeated Democrat Hiral Tipirneni, a former emergency room doctor and first-time candidate, on Tuesday night in a solidly Republican district that President TrumpDonald TrumpHillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Twitter's algorithm boosts right-leaning content, internal study finds Ohio Democrat calls Vance an 'ass----' over Baldwin tweet Matt Taibbi says Trump's rhetoric caused public perception of US intelligence services to shift MORE won by 21 points in 2016.
The Associated Press called the race minutes after the first batch of votes came in, which were all early ballots. Lesko leads with 53 percent, compared to Tipirneni who’s at 47 percent. Those results are likely to change as in-person Election Day ballots are counted.
But even with the early call by the AP, Lesko won by a closer-than-expected margin, significantly underperforming compared to past Republicans in the district. Democrats and political observers were quick to suggest those early results should be a warning for Republicans in November as they navigate much tougher House races.
Tuesday’s special election was triggered by the resignation of GOP Rep. Trent FranksHarold (Trent) Trent FranksOn The Trail: Arizona is microcosm of battle for the GOP Arizona New Members 2019 Cook shifts 8 House races toward Dems MORE, who stepped down in December after allegedly asking a staffer to act as a surrogate mother. Lesko will serve out the remainder of Franks’s term.
It's possible that there can be another Lesko-Tipirneni match-up in the fall, since both are planning to run for a full two-year term.
“All I can say is wow, this is really something. This is really quite overwhelming,” Lesko said during her election night speech. “Twenty-five years ago, I left an abusive husband and I sure as heck never would have dreamed in a million years that I would be running for Congress and be a congresswoman.”
During her own speech late Tuesday night, Tipirneni told supporters that she’s not conceding and will wait for the rest of the results to come in on Wednesday.
"Something is happening here. What it comes down to is we knew our community and our district and our neighborhoods a hell of a lot better than the pundits did,” the Arizona Democrat said.
“Whatever happens, we know the fight is not over, it’s kind of just beginning,” she added. “Stay with us — win or lose, we’re taking this to November.”
Republicans were expected to hang on to the GOP stronghold, but national groups took a more cautious approach after a major Democratic upset in a special election in Pennsylvania last month.
GOP groups collectively spent more than $1 million to boost Lesko and curb Democrats’ voter enthusiasm. Meanwhile, Democratic groups largely stayed on the sidelines, though Tipirneni outraised Lesko overall.
Following the results, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve StiversSteven (Steve) Ernst StiversRepublican holds 11-point lead in Ohio race to replace Stivers: poll Trump asks if Rand Paul has 'learned lesson' on endorsements Five takeaways from the Ohio special primaries MORE touted the committee's early spending in the race. The NRCC had spent six-figures to boost Lesko.
“Debbie is a strong conservative whose values truly reflect those of the voters in Arizona’s Eighth District,” Stivers, who represents Ohio in the House, said in a statement. “The NRCC was proud to support her and our targeted and early investments proved to be a difference maker in the race.”
Democrats have had a recent string of special election victories in GOP strongholds — most recently in Pennsylvania. While Trump similarly carried that district by 20 points, Arizona’s 8th District was a much tougher landscape for Democrats to compete in — it’s overwhelmingly white, it has a large contingent of retirees and Republicans have a major voter registration edge.
Early voting numbers reflected a much older electorate and a GOP advantage, but polling in the final weeks of the race was all over the map. Polls showed the race anywhere from a statistical dead heat to Lesko ahead by 10 points.
Lesko was a state legislator for more than a decade, establishing relationships in the district particularly in the expansive retirement community Sun City. She played up her support for Trump and his agenda. And, like in other special elections, the president got involved by recording a robo-call and tweeting his support for Lesko hours before the polls closed on Tuesday.
Lesko sought to paint Tipirneni as too liberal for the district, pointing to the Democrat's support for a public health-care option and opposition to the GOP’s tax overhaul.
But Tipirneni and her campaign pushed back on that characterization, insteading highlighting that she wanted a pragmatic approach to gun control and immigration as well as protections for Social Security and Medicare.
Despite their loss, Democrats are expected to capitalize on the closer-than-usual margin in Trump country as a sign that the party can compete in a large swath of competitive seats to take back the House. Democrats need to flip 23 seats to regain the majority.
"The GOP barely hung onto a seat in a region they've represented for 35 years,” Bradley Beychok, president of Democratic group American Bridge, wrote in an election night memo. “That spells disaster for them in November."
Updated at 12:40 a.m.