Another Tuesday, another stronger-than-normal performance for Democrats in special elections.
Former Arizona state Sen. Debbie Lesko (R) defeated Democratic physician Hiral Tiperneni in a heavily Republican congressional district Tuesday night, with the Associated Press calling the race shortly after 11 p.m. eastern time.
But the margin was nowhere near Republicans’ normal performance in the ruby-red district: Lesko led Tiperneni by just 53 percent to 47 percent with early votes counted, a large majority of the votes expected to be cast in the election.
If those numbers hold up, that’s a massive swing towards Democrats — the latest major improvement over earlier performance for the party since Donald Trump became president. Trump carried the district by a 21-point margin in 2016, and Mitt Romney carried it by an even wider 25-point margin in 2012. The seat opened up with the resignation of disgraced Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ).
“There are no moral victories in politics, but I’m celebrating tonight,” Democratic strategist Andy Barr, who has deep Arizona ties, told TPM as the results rolled in. “The median age of early voters was 68 and that district is about the whitest in the state. If we’re losing by six in that scenario then the whole state opens up.”
Lesko’s rather narrow win in the west suburban Phoenix district came after national Republican groups spent more than $1 million to hang onto the district, and the result comes just weeks after Democrats overcame a big spending deficit to win another heavily Republican House seat in Pennsylvania last month.
Strategists in both parties had been doubtful that the seat was in real jeopardy in the race’s closing days. But Democrats were already casting a single-digit margin as a big victory for them in a part of the state where they haven’t even tried to compete for decades.
Republican leaders publicly tried to put a brave face on the narrow win.
“Congratulations to Debbie on her hard-fought victory,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) said in a statement. “Her victory proves that Republicans have a positive record to run on this fall and we need to spend the next seven months aggressively selling our message to the American people.
Democrats also flipped a statehouse seat in New York they haven’t held in three decades Tuesday night — their 40th statehouse pickup of the Trump era. Their candidate’s margin of victory in the Long Island-based seat was considerably larger than its normally swing nature.
Special elections often magnify an enthusiasm gap between parties. But these results are a great sign for House Democrats as they look to win back the lower chamber — as well as Arizona Democrats who hope to seize retiring Sen. Jeff Flake’s (R-AZ) seat and possibly defeat Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) this fall.