Republican Debbie Lesko won the House special election in Arizona Tuesday night, holding off a closer-than-expected Democratic challenge in a district that President Donald Trump won by 21 points in 2016.
Lesko had 53 percent of the vote when The Associated Press called the race an hour after the polls closed, with over 155,000 early votes tallied. Democrat Hiral Tipirneni had 47 percent of the vote.
But Lesko’s single-digit margin is the latest evidence that Republicans face a punishing midterm environment, even in Trump-friendly territory. Lesko’s victory comes on the heels of losses for Republicans in southwestern Pennsylvania, where Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb beat Republican Rick Saccone in a district that backed Trump by nearly 20 points in 2016, and in Alabama, where Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore last year. In many other special elections that Democrats have lost, the vote has shifted sharply in their direction compared to the 2016 presidential results.
“Republicans shouldn't be hitting the alarm, they should be slamming it," said Mike Noble, a GOP pollster based in Arizona. He added: "This district isn't supposed to be competitive, and so to see this margin, especially with the Republicans pouring in resources here — again, it's a tough year."
Dan Eberhart, a major Republican donor from Arizona, said Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and other GOP candidates need to be on high alert this fall.
"These election results are a wake up call to Republicans in Arizona and nationally," Eberhart said. "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."
Former Rep. Trent Franks triggered the 8th Congressional District special election in 2017 when he resigned amidst allegations of sexual impropriety, and the GOP remained in control of the race to retain his seat from the get-go. National Republican groups poured in more than $1 million into the district to boost Lesko and prevent another special election from getting out of hand.
The district’s Republican tilt showed through as over 150,000 residents voted early in the weeks leading up to the special election. Nearly half of those early voters were registered Republicans, according to Arizona’s secretary of state office, while just over one-quarter were registered Democrats.
But independent and late-breaking voters appear to have swung toward Tipirneni. Before the election, Tipirneni’s pollster, Josh Ulibarri, said their internal tracking polls found that Tipirneni was attracting some crossover Republican support.
“What you’re seeing is that Donald Trump is toxic, even in bright red Republican territory,” said Rodd McLeod, a Democratic consultant based in Arizona who worked on Tipirneni’s campaign. “Independent voters are dismayed and distressed by what they’re seeing out of Trump’s Washington.”
McLeod said the results augur well for Democratic chances this fall.
“If Hiral did 15 points better than Hillary Clinton, then add 15 points to every Democrat running on the ballot this year,” McLeod added.
GOP outside groups — including the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan — dumped resources on the district to boost early turnout and cement the party’s latent advantage in the district.
National Democrats, meanwhile, largely stayed on the sidelines. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee didn’t spend on TV ads in the race, though the Democratic National Committee invested $175,000 in the district through online fundraising, get-out-the-vote efforts and other infrastructure. The independent-expenditure unit of the Working Families Party also spent $100,000 to help Tipirneni.
Late Tuesday night, Republicans touted their victory in the district, despite its slim margin. House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement that Lesko’s “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."
“Debbie is a strong conservative whose values truly reflect those of the voters in Arizona’s Eighth District,” NRCC Chairman Steve Stivers said in a statement late Tuesday. “The NRCC was proud to support her and our targeted and early investments proved to be a difference maker in the race.”