Retiring Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake said this week that Rep.-elect Debbie Lesko’s win in this week’s special election isn’t worth celebrating.
“It’s just the latest of many wake-up calls we have seen,” he said. “It’s a concern.”
President Donald Trump won Arizona’s deep-red Eighth Congressional District by 21 points in 2016. Lesko won by less than 5.
It’s something election watchers think should spark worry among the GOP. “No excuse” Republicans, Dave Wasserman, of Cook Political Report, tweeted Wednesday morning after the final count came in. With an open Senate seat up in 2018, a tight race in a deep-red House district makes Arizona’s statewide races look more attainable for Democrats.
Yet congressional Republicans are ready with excuses. A win is still a win, Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the official campaign arm for Senate Republicans, told Vox.
“The bottom line is she won in a special election where she should have won,” Gardner said. “The narrative for Republicans seems to be in Washington: When they lose, they lose; when they win, they lose.”
“Special elections are difficult to glean too much from because you don’t want to overemphasize the snapshot in time they represent,” he continued. “Arizona is a Republican state, still supportive of President Trump, and that’s why the Republican nominee I believe will go on to victory.”
Despite Arizona going for Republicans in every presidential election since 1996 (and before that, 1948) and total Republican control of the state, Gardner did concede that Arizona will be a “tough state” in 2018 and “you always learn something behind the numbers.”
Arizona’s Eighth was never on the list of Democratic target races, but Republicans felt the need to pour money into it — and that plays right into the Democratic Party’s strategy. They want Republicans stretched thin. And many see Arizona as a state with a growing Latino population in the Southwest that has the potential to flip, like Nevada and Texas.
The real story here is that Democratic enthusiasm has been taking off in special elections across the country. A Democrat won a Trump +20 district in Pennsylvania, the Senate race in Alabama, and a state Senate seat and Supreme Court seat in Wisconsin; Democrats also substantially closed the gap in Montana, South Carolina, Georgia, Kansas, and Oklahoma.
After the loss in Pennsylvania, Republicans rattled off the same justifications, from deriding their own candidate’s fundraising to saying the Pennsylvania 18th was a Democratic district in the first place (it’s not), that the Democrat ran as a “conservative,” or that eventually voters would see the benefits of their economic policy.
Those excuses fall flat in Arizona. The Democrat in this race, Hiral Tipirneni, ran very close to the Democratic 2018 playbook, on health care, and in a district without Democratic heritage or changing demographics, where registered Republicans vastly outnumbered registered Democrats. Still, Lesko only narrowly pulled out a victory.
Even so, Gardner made an effort to play it cool. Special elections are special, he says. “Trying to compare it to a presidential is not a fair comparison.”
Only November will show whether Republicans have been right to downplay the attention around a blue wave or whether they’ve just spent months putting their heads in the sand. Flake — one of the earliest Republican casualties of this midterm election cycle — warns it’s the latter.
“I’m glad I’m not in it,” Flake said.