Democrats think they’re likely to fall short in their uphill battle to capture a ruby-red congressional district in suburban Phoenix on Tuesday. And they’re just fine with that.
Hiral Tipirneni (D), a doctor, is giving former state Sen. Debbie Lesko (R) a real fight in the battle to replace Trent Franks, the disgraced former Arizona Republican congressman. While early voting numbers show Lesko should prevail, national GOP groups have had to spend roughly $1 million to make sure another race that shouldn’t be competitive at all stays in their column.
Most strategists in both parties think Lesko is likely to win by a high single-digit margin. If that holds up, it’ll be the latest sign of fierce headwinds for Republicans in the state and nationally as they buckle down for a brutal 2018 election.
“If this gets inside of a 10-point margin, that’s huge… I don’t think anyone expects it to be a full-on victory, but stranger things have happened,” Arizona state Sen. Steve Farley (D), who’s running for governor, told TPM. “If we’re talking about 10-point swings [in the district], everything swings in Arizona. That’s why I’m very optimistic of winning the governor’s race this November.”
Moral victories don’t get Democrats any closer to seizing back House control. But the mere fact that any real money or attention is being spent on this race is a bad sign for Republicans as they aim to hold onto an open Senate seat in the state, an open House seat, and the governorship.
“It’s a reflection of the cycle and the climate,” one top Arizona Republican told TPM, warning that the GOP was in for a tough year in a state where rapid Hispanic growth has turned the Republican bastion into swing territory.
To call the west suburban and exurban Phoenix district challenging terrain for Democrats is an understatement. President Trump carried it by a 21-point margin. Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (R) easily won in the district that year as well, even as he was losing his reelection bid by a 13-point margin. Mitt Romney carried it by 25 points in 2012. Franks’ closest win in the past decade was with 63 percent of the vote. Unlike Pennsylvania’s 18th district, where Democrat Conor Lamb pulled off a huge upset last month, the district’s heavily senior citizen population has no history of voting for local Democrats. And while the state is just 56 percent non-Hispanic white, 70 percent of the district is.
All those advantages weren’t enough to quell Republicans’ nerves about the race, however. The National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund, the top GOP House super-PAC, have both spent hundreds of thousands to shore up Lesko’s standing with advertising. The groups added even more money for ads down the homestretch to salt the race away and avoid a repeat of the Lamb fiasco. Trump recorded a robocall for her as well.
“We’re trying to make sure we don’t take any chances,” NRCC Chairman Rep. Steve Stivers (R-OH) told TPM before predicting a victory margin of six to 10 points. “We feel pretty confident, but we decided to just finish the job and that’s why we’re running this hybrid [ad] at the end.”
Stivers downplayed the importance of special elections in forecasting this fall’s contests, but warned that it was the latest sign the other side was pumped to vote.
“There is a message: The Democrats are excited, they’re turning out,” he said.
A pair of recent polls, one from Tipirneni’s campaign and another from Emerson College, show a tied race, and some Democrats haven’t given up hope that she could pull off a miracle.
“I think she’s going to win,” Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) told TPM.
“West Valley voters see in Debbie Lesko everything they hate about politics: the special favors, the cozy relationships with corrupt figures, and the willingness to sell out ordinary families to big corporate interests,” argued Tipirneni spokesman Jason Kimbrough. “That’s why all of the recent polling shows an unusually large number of Republicans who have returned their early ballots are voting for Hiral Tipirneni.”
But few strategists think those poll results are anywhere near accurate. Republicans have cast fully 49 percent of the ballots in early voting returns to just 28 percent for Democrats, and almost two thirds of the number of votes expected for the race have already been cast. Tipirneni is banking on big support from independents and some Republicans, but even with strong crossover votes that margin is almost definitely too much to overcome. National Democrats seem to agree: They haven’t spent much to help their candidate in the race, though her own fundraising has been pretty strong.
“This race is pretty close to over, the cake is just about baked,” said Lesko adviser Barrett Marson. “There’s a lot of people who are looking for a close campaign. I just don’t know that it’s going to be that close.”
Strategists predicted anywhere from a four-point win to one in the low double digits. Even a 10-point loss would still be a double-digit shift towards Democrats, however. If their candidates can replicate that across the state this fall, Democrats would finally turn their long-time dream of proving Arizona’s really a swing state into a reality.
There are signs that’s already happening. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) leads all of her potential GOP opponents in a new poll of the race to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ). Sinema has a six-point advantage over Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ), the front-runner in the primary and establishment favorite, and double-digit leads over the pair of hardline Republicans McSally is looking to defeat en route to a tough general election.
Republicans privately admit they have an uphill fight to retain the Democratic-leaning Tucson seat McSally is vacating or to beat freshman Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D-AZ) in a district Trump narrowly carried last fall.
Even Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R), who once appeared a shoe-in for reelection, is looking like he’ll have a tough race this fall. And Republicans are praying that ailing Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) sticks around the Senate through the end of May, to avoid having to defend a second seat in the state this fall.
With all that in mind, Democrats are excited that Tipirneni is even in the race.
“This is legitimately competitive,” said Andy Barr, a Democratic strategist with deep Arizona ties. “Whether she wins or comes close, that should scare the shit out of them.”