Conservatives nationwide breathed a sigh of relief following Tuesday night’s special election for Arizona’s Eighth Congressional District, as former State Sen. Debbie Lesko clinched a hard-fought victory over Democratic candidate Hiral Tipirneni — but they may not want to get too comfortable.
Lesko won the seat vacated by former Republican Congressman Trent Franks, who resigned in December amid allegations that he had offered $5 million to a former aide and repeatedly pressed her to be a surrogate for him and his wife. Franks had held that seat since 2013, when his seat was redistricted, easily winning re-election in 2014 and 2016.
In the wake of that controversy, as well as several embarrassing finishes in other national races, fundraising groups like the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and the Congressional Leadership Fund pulled out all the fundraising stops, collectively infusing more than $1 million into the district to boost Lesko’s campaign.
However, the incoming congresswoman faced a significant challenge from Democrat physician Hiral Tipirneni, who collected a relatively meager $275,000 in outside spending from national organizations like the Democratic National Committee and the Working Families Party. And while a good portion of the early votes were in Lesko’s favor, as Politico reported Tuesday night, late-breaking and independent voters — as well as crossover Republican voters — very nearly tilted the results toward her Democratic rival.
In the end, Lesko won the reliably red district with approximately 52.6 percent of the total vote — far lower than the 63-75 percent Franks had received in his past blowout wins.
“These election results are a wake up call to Republicans in Arizona and nationally,” GOP donor Dan Eberhart told Politico on Tuesday night. “Winning the Arizona 8th by such a small margin portends very little margin of error for Gov. Doug Ducey and the eventual Arizona Republican Senate nominee this fall.”
As FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver noted Wednesday morning, Arizona’s Eighth District has long been “extremely Republican.” In 2016, President Donald Trump won it by a margin of 20 points; in 2012, Mitt Romney did even better, winning the district by 25 percentage points. Past elections have yielded similar results: during the 2008 presidential election, John McCain won the district by 22 points, despite winning the state by a smaller margin of 8.5 percentage points overall.
The results of Tuesday’s election are a stark contrast to those prior results, perhaps indicating that the so-called “Blue Wave” of Democratic midterm victories may be inching closer to reality.
Just last month, Democrat Conor Lamb won Pennsylvania’s special election for the state’s 18th Congressional District — another reliably red seat — by a slim margin of less than 1 percentage point, filling the seat vacated by Republican Tim Murphy. Murphy, a pro-life conservative, resigned in October after it was revealed he’d had an affair with a woman and asked her to have an abortion when she became pregnant. He had previously served as the district’s representative since 2003.
In his formidable challenge to Republican candidate Rick Saccone, Lamb appealed to voters who admired his more centrist stances on guns, as well as blue collar workers unhappy with Trump’s recent tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. Many voters also cited GOP efforts to roll back the Affordable Care Act as the impetus for their decision. Motivated by early polling, Saccone’s major Republican backers poured a whopping $14 million into the race to swing the results in his favor, to no avail.
In December last year, Democrats gained another coveted seat after then-candidate Doug Jones beat his Republican opponent, Roy Moore, to win the Senate seat vacated by now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Moore was plagued by allegations of sexual predation involving several young women, one of whom was a teenager when Moore — then in his 30s — allegedly began a relationship with her, giving Jones an easier path to victory than other Democrat challengers in red states.
Despite Tipirneni’s loss in Arizona on Tuesday night, the election results indicate that the tide may be turning: Tipirneni’s opponent faced no outstanding allegations of impropriety and she was largely unsupported by national Democratic groups — yet the longtime physician and cancer research advocate was able to whittle the district’s typical margin by an astounding 16 percentage points.
“It’s a warning shot,” Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake (R), who plans to retire when his term is up at the end of this year, told The New York Times on Tuesday night. “Anything below a 10-point margin is not good news.”