Republican Debbie Lesko won Arizona’s special election on Tuesday night, beating back a strong challenge from Democrat Hiral Tipirneni in a district that Donald Trump won by more than 20 percentage points less than two years ago. The Associated Press called the race shortly after the mail-in ballots were counted, which some estimates peg at about 80 percent of the vote. Lesko held a 6-point lead on those ballots, 53 percent to 47 percent. (Update, 9:45 a.m: With all precincts reporting, Lesko’s lead was 5 points on Wednesday morning.) She will now replace GOP Rep. Trent Franks, who resigned from Congress in disgrace late last year after it became public that he offered a female employee $5 million to have his baby.
For Republicans, Lesko’s win will be a relief, evidence that a credible candidate in a conservative district can overcome the political headwinds facing the party this year. For Democrats, the race was little more than a heat check to see how they might fare in a deep-red district with lots of retirees, where they didn’t even bother to run a challenger in the last two cycles. The results will do little to dissuade Democrats from believing they can compete in parts of the country where they rarely dared to go in recent years.
That this race was so close would have been shocking—if not for Conor Lamb’s House upset victory in western Pennsylvania last month, and Doug Jones’ Senate stunner in Alabama last December. This was the first time Democrats even bothered to field a candidate in the district since 2012, when their nominee got blown out by Franks in the first election after the state’s congressional map was redrawn. The district went for Trump by 21 points in 2016 and by 25 points for Mitt Romney four years before that. And unlike in southwestern Pennsylvania, where Democrats have had limited electoral success this century, Arizona’s West Valley hasn’t sent a Democrat to the U.S. House since 1980.
Like Lamb, Tipirneni referred to herself a moderate, but in fact, she took more liberal positions on a variety of issues. Where Lamb offered a general defense of Obamacare but rarely went into specifics, Tipirneni, an emergency room physician, backed 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 talked about the “devastating loss of life from gun violence” that she’s seen firsthand in the ER. Tipirneni also opposed Trump’s border wall, in a district that is known for its support for former sheriff Joe Arpaio, an immigration hard-liner.
Tipirneni outraised her opponent by about $170,000— $734,000 to Lesko’s $564,000 at last count—but she could never quite generate the momentum of Lamb, who brought in $6.4 million. And yet despite all of Tipirneni’s disadvantages, Republicans felt they had to shell out more than $1 million on the race so as not to risk a repeat of Pennsylvania. Tipirneni, meanwhile, got only nominal financial support from a national Democratic Party that was content to sit on the sidelines in a contest where they had nothing to lose.
Republicans were able to hold the district, in part because Lesko was a solid candidate who ran a solid campaign. She proved a decent enough fundraiser and she has deep ties to the district, which includes a mix of small towns, retirement communities, and western Phoenix suburbs in Maricopa County. Lesko represented a large swath of it during her time in both chambers of the state legislature, and she previously won the hearts of retirees—a key demo in the district—when she introduced a 2014 bill making it legal for golf carts to be driven on the shoulder of roadways. (Local seniors were so excited that at least one retirement community held a golf-cart parade in honor of the bill becoming law.)
Lesko’s victory will stop the bleeding for Republicans, after a string of high-profile losses. But the relatively narrow margin will do little to discourage the idea that a Democratic wave could crash almost anywhere come November.