Tomorrow, the votes will be counted in a special congressional election in the Eighth Congressional District of Arizona (in the suburbs to the north and west of Phoenix). But a large majority of the votes have probably already been cast thanks to liberal early-voting rules (including permanent early-voting registration that dispatches mail ballots automatically).
Arizona’s Eighth District is not fertile ground for Democrats. Like Pennsylvania’s 18th, where Democrat Conor Lamb pulled off a big upset in a special election in March, Arizona’s Eighth has been heavily Republican in recent years. Its Cook Political Report partisan voting index is R+13, 13 points more Republican than the country as a whole. That would normally mean a GOP advantage of well over 20 points in a “normal” congressional election. Trump carried the district by 21 points in 2016; Romney carried it by 25 points in 2012. Republicans also have a 17 percent advantage in party registration in the Eighth District (in Pennsylvania’s 18th, Democrats actually had a slight registration advantage). The last incumbent, Republican Representative Trent Franks (who resigned in December after a scandal involving solicitations to his staff to serve as a surrogate mother for the congressman and his wife), faced only minor-party opposition in 2016 and 2014.
This is also, famously, retirement country. The electorate skews old and white, which is typically good news for Republicans in low-turnout non-presidential contests.
Given the district’s political landscape, the fact that at least two polls (one candidate-sponsored, one independent) show this to be a competitive race between Democratic physician Hiral Tipirneni and Republican state legislator Debbie Lesko seems to confirm that the strongly pro-Democratic breeze in 2017 and 2018 special elections is still blowing briskly. Spending between the candidates (and their backers) is relatively even, and a lot more modest than the massive amount of money that poured into Pennsylvania’s 18th.
Tipirneni is running a relatively centrist campaign, supporting “common-sense gun reforms” while also defending Second Amendment rights; backing a Medicare buy-in proposal rather than single-payer; and favoring a balance between border enforcement and a “path to citizenship” for the undocumented. Lesko has identified strongly with Donald Trump, particularly on immigration (this district has been a hotbed of support for Sheriff Joe Arpaio), and is probably best known for sponsoring a radical school-voucher proposal that will be on the statewide ballot in November. Both candidates had to overcome significant primary opposition, with Lesko being significantly helped by a rival’s sexting scandal, and Tipirneni defeating an activist who drew attention for being a transgender woman.
Despite her strong showing in some polls, odds of a Tipirneni upset have dropped as the profile of early voters became clear. As of Monday, 151,000 early votes had been cast, 49 percent from registered Republicans as compared to 28 percent for registered Democrats. The median age of early voters so far is 67, another good sign for Republicans.
But a GOP win in this district would not be a whole lot to brag about. Here’s how FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich puts it:
Even if Lesko ends up winning Arizona’s 8th District comfortably, beware of a media narrative that portrays it as good news for Republicans, or at least a reprieve from the recent run of close elections….
Based on FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean, an 8-point Lesko win would be exactly in line with past special-election results that have pointed to a Democratic wave.
They say “close” only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. It can also count in special elections as harbingers of regular election trends. Arizona will be important in November in no small part because it has a highly competitive Senate election (and could have two if John McCain’s poor health forces him to resign this year). A new poll this week from OH Predictive Insights/ABC15 showed Democratic Representative Kyrsten Sinema handily leading all three GOP candidates in the race to succeed retiring Republican Senator Jeff Flake. It also showed hard-core conservative Kelli Ward — who trails Sinema by ten points in a general-election trial heat — leading Martha McSally and Joe Arpaio for the GOP nomination.
If Debbie Lesko wins by double digits in Arizona’s Eighth, Republicans will have reason to feel pretty good about it. Anything less than that could be another bad sign for the midterms.