Republicans expect to win Tuesday’s special House election in Arizona. But they aren’t expecting it to make them feel good.
National Republicans have poured more than $1 million into a deep-red slice of the Phoenix suburbs to boost Debbie Lesko, a former state senator running to replace former Rep. Trent Franks in Congress. The district backed President Donald Trump by 21 points in 2016, but most GOP operatives said the best-case scenario they see for Lesko is a high single-digit margin of victory against Democrat Hiral Tipirneni on Tuesday.
While the special election never attracted as much attention as some close contests over the last year, the race has still illustrated the stiff headwinds buffeting Republicans ahead of the midterms, with Democrats energized and independents leaning against the GOP in Arizona and around the country. The district’s conservative lean and large share of seniors — the third-highest of any congressional district outside Florida — have insulated Lesko, but worrying signs are still there for Republicans watching the race.
“If Lesko wins by a slim margin in a district that overwhelmingly went for President Trump, it will mean statewide candidates are going to have a rough road to hoe,” said Dan Eberhart, a major Republican donor from Arizona, which has an open Senate race and a gubernatorial race this fall. “If Tipirneni wins … the Republicans are the clear underdogs in the Arizona Senate race this fall.”
Chip Scutari, a Republican consultant in Arizona, said that a single-digit margin in Arizona’s 8th District would be “a wake-up call to Republican elected officials that this is a radically different off-year,” adding that “this anti-Trump mood has reached new a stratosphere.”
Franks’ resignation last year following allegations of sexual impropriety triggered the special election, and Republican groups raced into the district to try to prevent it from turning into another hard-fought and nationally watched contest.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, spent $200,000 on phone-banking and digital ads, while the Republican National Committee dropped about $500,000 on get-out-the-vote efforts. The National Republican Congressional Committee aired TV ads in coordination with the Lesko campaign, along with additional ads from its independent expenditure unit, bringing its spending up to $500,000 in the race.
The Arizona Republican Party volunteers plan to send upward of 100,000 text messages to voters by Election Day.
Meanwhile, Trump recorded a robocall to bolster the Republican turnout effort. Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy both raised money for Lesko in the final stretch.
Yet despite that effort, public and internal polls of the race have shown Tipirneni winning independents by a double-digit advantage. An ABC15 poll with OH Predictive found that independents opted for Tipirneni by a 12-point margin, with another 14 percent of Republican voters crossing party lines to back Tipirneni.
It hasn’t been enough to worry Lesko — but the same trend statewide would signal trouble for other Arizona Republicans in the fall.
“The trend is clear: The GOP has a problem with independents and the president’s favorability, among independent voters, directly correlates with whomever the Republican nominee is in a general election, and that’s really concerning,” said Mike Noble, a Republican pollster who conducted the ABC15 poll. “What we’ve seen is that Democrats are united, Republicans are unified, but not as much as Democrats, and independents are trending toward Democrats.”
Still, national Democrats largely stayed out of the race. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee didn’t spend on TV ads in this special election, though the independent-expenditure unit of the Working Families Party dropped in $100,000 to help Tipirneni.
DCCC spokesman Jacob Peters said Tipirneni has “run a local, well-funded and organized campaign,” adding that the committee has “worked closely with Dr. Tipirneni and her team.”
Tipirneni’s campaign saw late hope, though, in an internal poll that showed her and Lesko tied, with the Democrat holding a huge advantage among independents, 63 percent to 25 percent.
“If this trend holds, it is just enough drift to push this special election to Tipirneni,” according to the polling memo.
But the demographics of this district are particularly good for Republicans, even more so than in other special elections in Trump-friendly districts. The 8th District is dominated by white, older voters — a group that has not trended toward Democrats.
Early voting data — with more than 150,000 ballots returned — points to an older electorate: The average age of early voters so far is just under 64 years old, according to an estimate from Garrett Archer, a senior adviser for election data at Arizona’s secretary of state’s office. Registered Republicans have also cast many more ballots than registered Democrats, by a margin of more than 20 points.
“If you look at the early vote numbers that have come out, Republicans are hitting all their marks,” said Michael Duncan, a Republican consultant who worked on targeting 70,000 to 100,000 mail-in voters with digital ads for the Congressional Leadership Fund.
Tipirneni, who raised $740,000 for her bid, used the cash to cast Lesko as “more of the same” in Congress, repeatedly tagging her a “career politician” in TV ads.
“If we want to see progress, we need to send Dr. Hiral Tipirneni to Congress — E.R. physician, not a politician,” the ad continues.
But The Arizona Republic reported that Tipirneni “stretch[ed] truth” in another TV ad, which attacked Lesko for “a federal investigation into illegal money laundering.” But that claim refers to a Federal Election Commission complaint against Lesko.
“The Tipirneni campaign put almost $1 million in on negative ads on Debbie, so that’s going to have a significant impact,” said Barrett Marson, a spokesman for the Lesko campaign.
Lesko and the NRCC, in a joint TV ad, slammed Tipirneni for her “radical agenda,” saying that she wants to “block border security,” “force taxpayer-funded health care for illegal aliens” and support “European-style health care for the rest of us.”