Nervous Republicans Are Spending Big to Break a Special Election Losing Streak

Arizona State Rep. and U.S. House candidate Debbie Lesko speaks with a constituent during the meeting of the state committee of the Arizona Republican Party on Jan. 27 in Phoenix.
Arizona State Rep. and U.S. House candidate Debbie Lesko speaks with a constituent during the meeting of the state committee of the Arizona Republican Party on Jan. 27 in Phoenix. Matt York/AP Photo

Panicked by recent results and fearing another national embarrassment, Republicans are spending big in hopes of holding on to a district Donald Trump won in a landslide. Sound familiar? It should. After high-profile losses in Alabama and Pennsylvania, Republicans are now desperate to win next month’s special election in Arizona.

According to Politico, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC are spending a combined $270,000 in Arizona in support of Debbie Lesko, the former state senator running to fill the House seat that opened up when GOP Rep. Trent Franks resigned from Congress in disgrace late last year. That’s on top of the roughly $280,000 the Republican National Committee has already reported spending on field operations on Lesko’s behalf. Add it all up, and that’s more than a half-million dollars in a district that would be well under the radar in any normal year.

This is the first time Democrats have even bothered to field a candidate in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District since 2012, when their nominee got blown out by Franks in the first election after the state’s congressional map was redrawn. Franks had already served five terms in Congress, and he went on to win his second and third in his new district by even wider margins over third-party candidates. The district, which includes a mix of small towns and western Phoenix suburbs in Maricopa County, also went for Trump by 21 percentage points in 2016 and by 25 percentage points for Mitt Romney four years before that. It has nearly 80,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats, good for about a 17-point edge for the GOP.

Politico reports that GOP officials claim that the recent spending is merely “precautionary” and that “they fully expect to prevail” in the April 24 special election, but that can be true and still be remarkable. In a vacuum, this seat would be considered safe, even after Franks’ scandal. That Republicans feel the need to spend so much and so early in the race is one more sign of just how nervous they are about a blue wave this November.

But no race happens in a vacuum. The special election will be held a little more than a month after Conor Lamb flipped a GOP congressional seat in western Pennsylvania, and a little more than four after Doug Jones did the same to a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama. On paper, neither of those races should have been competitive either. And like in Pennsylvania, where Rep. Tim Murphy resigned after a local newspaper reported that he had encouraged a woman he had an affair with to have an abortion, and in Alabama, where Moore was credibly accused of being a child sex predator by multiple women, this special election comes with a sex scandal of its own, one that qualifies as salacious even in an era where porn stars—plural—are claiming to have slept with the man now in the Oval Office. Franks resigned after it became public that he offered a female employee $5 million to have his baby—and that woman apparently believed Franks wanted to impregnate her the old-fashion way.

What followed was a second sex scandal in the primary to replace Franks. The co-favorite for the Republican nomination, Steve Montenegro, a minister and recent state senator, had the backing of both Franks and disgraced-in-his-own-way Joe Arpaio. But his campaign was derailed in the final days of the primary when he was forced to admit to sexting with a junior staffer who worked in his state office. Lesko won, but not before she got hit with a scandal of her own, when one of her then-challengers filed a campaign finance complaint alleging she had moved money between her state Senate campaign account and a super PAC.

Still, there’s good reason to doubt that Democrat Hiral Tipirneni will pull off the upset in Arizona. Polling has been hard to come by, but a survey from the start of this month found Lesko up 14 percentage points on Tipirneni, 48 percent to 34 percent. The Democratic firm that conducted it, Lake Research Partners, concluded that Tipirneni would need double-digit support from registered Republicans to win next month. Meanwhile, the nonpartisan handicappers reworked their predictions following Pennsylvania, but they still expect the Arizona seat to stay red.

Tipirneni, an emergency room physician, has not yet found a way to turn on the small-donor spigot from the grass-roots left or the anti-Trump resistance that fueled both Lamb and Jones’ upset victories. At last count, she’d raised only about $300,000—Lamb brought in more than $3.8 million; Jones nearly $22 million in his statewide race—though she does have more cash on hand than Lesko.

Like Lamb, Tipirneni proudly labels herself a moderate, but she’s had less success than he did walking that fine line in her conservative-leaning district. Lamb, for example, offered a general defense of Obamacare, but rarely went into specifics; Tipirneni backs a public option. Lamb’s first campaign ad showed a photo of him at a gun range and declared, “he still loves to shoot”; Tipirneni talks about the “devastating loss of life from gun violence” that she’s seen firsthand in the ER. And then there’s Trump’s beloved border wall: Tipirneni, like Lamb, is against it, but in Arizona, unlike Pennsylvania, the issue of whether to build it takes center stage.

For Republicans, the race offers a chance to dent the narrative that Democrats can win anywhere they want in November. Arizona will be the only federal race on the ballot in April and the last special election until August. For Democrats, who have already demonstrated they can win in western Pennsylvania and Alabama, it’s not exactly imperative. Even if they can’t pick off another GOP seat next month, keeping the Arizona race close and forcing Republicans to open their wallets should count as a victory.