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Arizona’s special election result suggests many more GOP House districts could be competitive

Many low-profile contests in less conservative districts feature a Democratic challenger who’s raised a lot of cash.

House Speaker Paul Ryan
Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Democrats didn’t win Tuesday’s special election for Arizona’s Eighth Congressional District, but the party’s nominee put in a surprisingly strong showing in a district where she had no business being competitive, losing by just 5 percentage points in a district Donald Trump won by 21.

And though the outcome itself wasn’t as dramatic as the upset victories of Doug Jones in Alabama and Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania, the news should be deeply worrying for the GOP’s hopes for holding control of the House this fall.

The Democratic nominee, Hiral Tipirneni, wasn’t thought by the party to be a top-tier recruit. She was a first-time candidate who heavily emphasized her past experience as an ER doctor in ads, but it turned out she’s been out of practice for 10 years and had been sued for malpractice. However, hundreds of thousands of dollars in grassroots money poured in for her anyway, spurring worried Republican and conservative groups to spend more than $1 million to protect the seat for Debbie Lesko (a standard conservative Republican who ran on conservative themes).

Despite Lesko’s relatively narrow victory, the New York Times’s Nate Cohn wrote on Twitter that “this is the arguably the worst special congressional election result yet for the GOP,” because “there just aren’t any excuses” for the race being so close (as there were in, say, the Roy Moore race). Indeed, the result raises questions about just how many other Republican-held House seats will be closer contests than we currently expect.

Democrats need to pick up, on net, 23 seats to regain control of the chamber. Currently, the Cook Political Report estimates that 56 Republican-held districts already have “competitive” races at this point. (They view eight as Democrat-favored, 21 as toss-ups, and 27 as Republican favored.)

Yet I’ve currently been combing through Federal Election Commission fundraising reports, and I’ve counted at least 95 Republican-held districts in which a Democratic challenger has raised more than $250,000 this cycle. In addition to helping challengers have the cash to get their message on the airwaves, fundraising is also a sign of candidate strength. It’s an imperfect one, but if you can manage to raise a quarter-million dollars for your House campaign, you’re probably exciting somebody (whether that’s wealthy donors, locals, or the national grassroots).

Now, many of these impressive fundraising performances came in districts Trump won handily that we wouldn’t expect to be competitive. But of course, that’s just as true for the district Tipirneni ran in, which Trump won by 21 points. And in 85 of these 95 districts where Democrats have a strong fundraiser, Trump performed worse than he did in Arizona’s Eighth District in 2016.

Tipirneni did lose by about 5 points in the end. But if we narrow our data set to only districts Trump won by 16 points or less, where Democrats have at least one challenger who raised $250,000, that still leaves us with 77 districts. That’s far more districts than Democrats need to retake the House, and many of those races have gotten little or no national attention so far.

For instance, Democrats vying for the respective nominations to face Reps. Mark Sanford (R-SC), Scott Tipton (R-CO), Chris Smith (R-NJ), Steve Russell (R-OK), Don Young (R-AK), and Elise Stefanik (R-NY) have all raised more than a quarter-million each. None of these races are currently marked even as potentially competitive on Cook’s site. But if these candidates matched Tipirneni’s improvement relative to Hillary Clinton’s margin in their districts, they’d win. And indeed, Cook’s US House editor Dave Wasserman suggested on Twitter that he’s thinking about expanding his list of competitive races:

Generic ballot polling for Republicans has stabilized a bit of late (Democrats are leading by 7 points on average), as has Trump’s approval rating (around 40 percent). But the special election results have been positively dismal, showing widespread Democratic overperformance. The House (and Senate) fundraising numbers have been grim for the GOP as well. Perhaps that helps explain why Speaker Paul Ryan is calling it quits.