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Republican Debbie Lesko Wins Arizona Special Election

Victory keeps seat in GOP hands but margin could give Democrats hope

Former Arizona state Sen. Debbie Lesko is the Republican nominee in the 8th District race to replace Rep. Trent Franks. (Courtesy Debbie Lesko/Flickr)
Former Arizona state Sen. Debbie Lesko is the Republican nominee in the 8th District race to replace Rep. Trent Franks. (Courtesy Debbie Lesko/Flickr)

Updated Wednesday, 12:04 a.m. | Former Republican state Sen. Debbie Lesko won the special election in Arizona’s 8th District on Tuesday night, but her victory margin for a seat that President Donald Trump easily carried in 2016 appeared to be relatively slim.

The Associated Press called the race with Lesko leading Democrat Hiral Tipirneni, 53 percent to 47 percent in early ballots, which accounted for an estimated 75 percent of the total votes cast, according to the Arizona secretary of state’s office. The seat opened up after former GOP Rep. Trent Franks resigned in December amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

Lesko and Tipirneni could face off again in November. Both have said they plan to file to run again for a full term. The primary for that race is Aug. 28.

“This is really quite overwhelming. It’s very surreal,” Lesko said after her victory in video that was streamed on Facebook Live by 12 News. “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.”

Ahead of Tuesday’s election, Democrats noted that a single-digit margin of victory for Lesko could indicate trouble in the fall for other Republicans in Arizona and across the country, especially considering Trump carried the 8th District by 21 points.  

“Something’s happening here,” Tipirneni told supporters Tuesday night. She recalled being told when she first jumped into the race against Franks that winning would be impossible, and she shouldn’t bother running in such a Republican district.

“I think we proved a few people wrong,” Tipirneni said, according to video from ABC15 Arizona on Facebook Live. 

Closer than expected

Republican donor Dan Eberhart said in an email that Lesko’s win means that while the Republican brand can still win House seats this cycle, there is little room for error.

“These election results ought to startle Republicans in Arizona and nationally out of bed!” Eberhart wrote. “In terms of winning the election, the Republicans won. In terms of winning the campaign, the Republicans lost. The results were much closer than they should have been.”

One Democratic consultant involved in the race noted that it appeared Tipirneni won a sizable number of Republican and independent voters, since Democrats accounted for only 24 percent of the early votes cast, while their nominee’s percentage was almost twice that. The consultant said such results indicated that GOP messaging such as supporting Trump’s proposal for a Southern border wall or tying Democrats to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi did not work. 

The consultant suggested Tipirneni might have run out of time to make the race even closer, given the the short timeline.

Early voting began on March 28, just one month after the primary, and roughly a third of the early ballots were cast in the first two days. Tipirneni’s campaign said they saw a spike in fundraising after the primary and after Democrat Conor Lamb won a special election in Pennsylvania on March 13. 

Going all out

A former emergency room physician, Tipirneni raised $740,000 through April 4 surpassing Lesko’s haul of $564,000, according to Federal Election Commission documents. The fundraising edge helped her compete on the airwaves with spending by outside GOP groups.

Republicans came to Lesko’s aid in hopes of avoiding another Democratic upset. Groups including the Republican National Committee; the National Republican Congressional Committee; and the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership, spent a combined more than $1 million for the GOP nominee. 

NRCC Chairman Steve Stivers said in a statement Tuesday that the committee’s “targeted and early investments proved to be a difference maker in the race.”

CLF executive director Corry Bliss touted the group’s “hyper-targeted” phone and digital campaigns aimed at turning out Republican voters in a statement after Lesko was declared the winner.

Strong conservative

Lesko was endorsed by the House Freedom Caucus, though not every candidate endorsed by the hard-line conservative group joins its ranks. If Lesko is invited and decides to join, she would be the only woman in the bloc.

Throughout the campaign, the former state legislator stressed her support for Trump’s immigration policies, including building a wall on the Southern border. She also touted her support for the GOP tax overhaul.

Lesko was first elected to the Arizona state House in 2008, later winning a seat in the state Senate in 2014. She served as the Senate president pro tempore until she resigned from the chamber in January to focus on her congressional bid.

She becomes the only second Republican woman elected to Congress from Arizona, after Rep. Martha McSally, who is vacating her 2nd District seat to run for Senate. Campaigning with Lesko over the weekend, McSally noted the outsize attention the race had drawn, urging voters to help the former state senator “win big.”

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