Republicans’ single-digit victory in Tuesday’s special election in Arizona is raising more red flags for the party’s prospects in the November midterms, as Democrats continue to overperform in solidly GOP seats.
Former state Sen. Debbie Lesko (R) defeated Democrat Hiral Tipirneni by a slim 5-point margin, a closer-than-expected win for Republicans in a district that President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump takes shot at new GOP candidate in Ohio over Cleveland nickname GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 On The Money — Dems dare GOP to vote for shutdown, default MORE carried by 21 points in the 2016 election.
That result has Republicans fretting about protecting their fragile House majority, where they’ll be defending swing- and GOP-leaning seats that will be much tougher to compete in than Arizona’s 8th District.
Democrats need to flip 23 seats in the fall to take back the lower chamber.
“It keeps going back to the narrative that it’s just going to be a tough year for the GOP,” Mike Noble, a GOP strategist and pollster based in Arizona, told The Hill.
“This should be another wake up call that having an ‘R’ next to your name is not a good thing for swing districts for this election or, in this case, even safe districts,” he said.
Democrats have been overperforming in special elections since last year, with their most recent upset victory in last month’s Pennsylvania special election. Democrat Conor Lamb prevailed in a district that Trump similarly won by 20 points.
But Arizona's 8th District was going to be a much steeper climb for Democrats, given the demographics and voter registration that skew heavily in favor for Republicans. The district is overwhelmingly white and home to large retirement communities.
"These narrow results in Arizona’s 8th District spell serious trouble for the Republican majority, particularly because it proves there is no place in the country where energized, organized Democrats are not ready to compete,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) spokesman Jacob Peters.
Republicans were bracing for Democrats to have a strong performance in Tuesday’s special election, especially since Democrats haven’t bothered to field a candidate there since the 2012 election. Many strategists and political observers predicted Lesko would win by at least a high single-digit margin.
Political observers believe that Tipirneni’s strong showing lends credence to the argument that a wave is building in the months leading up to the November midterms.
“Regardless of the exact outcome though, this is just another terrible special election result for the Republicans. Zero excuse, given the permanent absentee list,” tweeted Nate Cohn, a writer for The New York Times’s Upshot. “And you're feeling great if you're, say, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Arizona.”
Dave Wasserman, a House elections analyst for Cook Political Report, also pointed out that there are 147 GOP-held seats that are less Republican than Arizona 8th District.
On Wednesday morning, the White House sought to defend Lesko’s slim victory.
President Trump tweeted Wednesday morning congratulating Lesko on a “big win” and accusing the media of being “so silent.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders argued that Lesko can't be compared to Trump and that "a win is a win" regardless of the size of the margin.
“No offense to this candidate, she's not Donald Trump. That was a different election, I don't think you can compare those two,” Sanders said in a Wednesday interview with Fox News. “I think the big story is a Republican won. A win is a win. I think there’s plenty of enthusiasm and plenty of support out there for Republicans moving into the midterms.”
But Republicans are sounding the alarm that the party needs to gear up for a tough battle in November, especially when there will be significantly more attention given to these races.
“The narrative right now is that if this is that close, imagine an R+6 district or R+10,” Noble said, referring to the Cook Partisan Voting Index, which compares districts' votes to the national average. “This was a special — wait until it’s the full-blown midterms and ads are running and awareness is higher.”