Republican Debbie Lesko won the election against Democrat Hiral Tipirneni in the special election for Arizona’s Eighth Congressional District. Decision Desk HQ called the race at 12:39 am Eastern time on Wednesday.
More than 151,000 ballots were cast before election day, and registered Republicans are outvoting Democrats 49 percent to 28 percent, with a median voter age of 67, according to the Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman. That margin shrunk significantly as the night went on, with Lesko up by about 6 points as the final tally was coming in.
When Republican Rep. Trent Franks resigned amid reports that he had offered a female staffer $5 million to be his baby surrogate, no one thought his deeply red Arizona district could be competitive. It encompasses the suburbs north and west of Phoenix in Maricopa County — the stomping grounds of infamous former Sheriff Joe Arpaio and home to the reliably conservative Sun City retirement community. Donald Trump won the district by 21 points. But polls showed some tightening in recent weeks, and Democrats are watching closely to see if they can weaken Republicans’ stronghold in the district.
Most election observers zeroed in on the margin by which Trump and Franks won compared with Lesko. That margin worried the GOP — especially after they saw Democrats win a Trump +20 district in Pennsylvania only last month.
Outside groups have poured more than $700,000 into Lesko’s campaign and sent some of the party’s biggest fundraising names — from House Speaker Paul Ryan to Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy — to stump for her. It’s clear Republicans aren’t taking any chances.
This race is about enthusiasm
It’s difficult to see how Democrats could replicate their success in Pennsylvania in Arizona’s Eighth. Republicans have strong roots in the region and make up 41 percent of registered voters — a clear advantage over Democrats, who only make up 24 percent of registered voters. It’s home to Maricopa County and Arpaio, who as sheriff was known for infringing on the constitutional rights of residents by assuming immigration status.
Despite Arizona’s fast-growing Latino population statewide, this district is nearly 90 percent white. Almost half the population is 55 or older. It includes the Sun City retirement community, a massive chunk of the district that consistently votes Republican.
And almost three-quarters of the voters submitted their ballots by mail. The county the district is in has a permanent early voting list, which many in Sun City residents are on. In other words, there isn’t as much potential for a drop-off of Republican voters.
Franks, who represented the vast majority of these constituents in the House of Representatives since 2003, was a clear reflection of these deeply red roots. He was considered to be one of the most conservative members of the House of Representatives — he’s a House Freedom Caucus member and ardent Trump defender, and is staunchly anti-abortion (he once tried to pass a 20-week abortion ban in the District of Columbia, even though he does not represent it).
Republicans are mounting a run-of-the-mill pro-tax cuts, “tough on immigration,” pro-Trump campaign. Meanwhile, the Democrat, Tipirneni, a former doctor, has almost exclusively focused on health care and Social Security.
Put together, this race is much less about the possibility of an upset Democratic win than it is a litmus test of party enthusiasm.
The question going into election day is: Can Democrats tighten the margin of Republican victory?
Correction: Polls close at 10 pm Eastern, as Arizona does not do Daylight Savings Time.