GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Republican Debbie Lesko won the special election in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District on Tuesday, keeping the U.S. House seat in GOP control but by a much narrower margin than expected.
The former state senator defeated Hiral Tipirneni, a former emergency room physician who had hoped to replicate surprising Democratic wins in Pennsylvania, Alabama and other states in a year where opposition to President Donald Trump’s policies have boosted the party’s chances in Republican strongholds.
Trump won the district by 21 percentage points in 2016, but early returns show Lesko winning by just 6 percentage points. Republican political consultant Chuck Coughlin called the margin “not good” for national Republicans looking at their chances in November.
“They should clean house in this election,” said Coughlin, longtime adviser to former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. “There’s a drag on the midterms for Republican candidates that’s being created by the national narrative. And it would be very hard to buck that trend if you’re in swing districts, much less close districts, if you can’t change that narrative between now and November.”
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Lesko replaces former Rep. Trent Franks, a Republican who resigned in December amid sexual misconduct allegations.
At a victory party in her Glendale neighborhood, Lesko greeted supporters and looked back in wonder.
“I’ve really come a long way and this is really quite overwhelming, it’s very surreal,” she said. “Twenty-five years ago I left an abusive husband and I sure as heck never would have dreamt in a million years that I would be running for Congress to be a congresswoman. I mean, that’s right, now I’m actually running for Congress, I won!”
The district sprawls across western Phoenix suburbs, covering some of the most conservative areas of the red state, including the retirement community of Sun City.
Tipirneni worked the district hard, making inroads rarely seen in an area that hadn’t elected a Democrat since the early 1980s. She was seen as a fresh Democratic face with relatively moderate views that could get support in the district. Making a push for older voters, she had said Lesko would vote to go after entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicaid to pay for tax cuts that mainly benefit the wealthy. She’s pushed a plan to allow some people to buy into Medicare.
Tipirneni said she still plans to run again in November. She said she wasn’t shocked to see her close to Lesko, despite the big GOP advantage in the district, saying people were ready for a change.
“We weren’t surprised, we’re not surprised,” Tipirneni said. “And we’re still waiting to see the rest of the votes. We’re not conceding. We’re still waiting for votes to be counted — so this isn’t over.”
The Associated Press called the race for Lesko after state officials released tallies of more than 155,000 mail-in ballots, which represent about 75 percent of the votes expected.
National Republican groups spent big to back Lesko, pouring in more than $500,000 in the suburban Phoenix district for television and mail ads and phone calls to voters. National Democratic groups didn’t commit money to the race, a sign they didn’t believe the seat was in play.
In the Feb. 27 primary, two out of every three ballots were cast for a Republican.
The seat became open when Franks stepped down after acknowledging that he had discussed surrogacy with two female staffers. A former aide told The Associated Press that he pressed her to carry his child as a surrogate and offered her $5 million.
Lesko slammed Tipirneni as being out of touch with voters who oppose government-run health care. She called the Democrat too liberal for the area, and pointed to Tipirneni’s opposition to a wall on the Mexican border.
Several Republican voters who spoke with AP said they backed Lesko primarily because she supported Trump’s border security plans.
David Hunt, a 64-year-old retired construction and warehouse worker from Glendale, said he cast his vote Tuesday for Lesko because he believed that immigrants in the country illegally are creating unfair competition for jobs for recent high school students in Arizona.
“She’s the best candidate to deal with the porous border,” Hunt said.
His views were echoed by Larry Bettis, a retiree from Glendale.
“Immigration – the fence,” Bettis said. “That’s all I really care about.”
Democrats said they wanted to send a message to Trump and supported Democratic health care plans.
“I don’t like the president and felt it was time to take a stand,” said Nikole Allen, a 45-year-old medical assistant from New York now living in Glendale. “It’s time for us to vote the Republicans out.” .