Democrat Hiral Tipirneni, a health care advocate and physician, is battling Republican Debbie Lesko, a conservative former state senator, for a seat representing an area that encompasses a swath of Phoenix’s western and northern suburbs.
Although national Republican operatives privately profess their confidence in a Lesko victory, the party brass is investing heavily in the race to guard against another embarrassing defeat. Three national GOP arms ― the National Republican Congressional Committee, the Republican National Committee, and the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) ― have together spent more than $1.2 million on Lesko’s behalf.
In addition, President Donald Trump recorded a robocall for Lesko, and several Republican leaders have traveled to the district to campaign and raise money for her.
The GOP would suffer a blow to morale from even a narrow win in the solidly Republican seat, which explains why national GOP leaders are not taking any chances, according to Gina Woodall, an Arizona State University politics expert.
“If this very safe Republican seat flips, then anything goes at the state level and at the federal level in November,” Woodall said. “Republicans have a tremendous amount to lose in Arizona.”
The fact that the contest has been competitive is a promising sign for Democrats. The state party, which has set up a field office and dedicated staffers to Tipirneni’s bid, is using the race as an opportunity to generate excitement and infrastructure for upcoming midterm opportunities.
Democrats have a serious shot in November of flipping the state Senate, where the GOP has a four-seat edge. The party plans to target at least six GOP-held state Senate seats, and has fielded promising candidates for an open U.S. Senate seat as well, including Rep. Kyrsten Sinema.
The 8th District special election has “already done some magic” for local Democrats, said Ann Teeters Johnson, a retiree from Sun City West. “Because there is a primary and an election again so soon, I think it would carry over.”
The demographics of Arizona’s 8th fundamentally favor Republicans. Over 84 percent of residents are white, and nearly 22 percent are aged 65 or older ― both groups that generally lean Republican.
Prior to his resignation in December, Rep. Trent Franks (R) routinely won re-election by more than 30 percentage points. (Franks resigned in December after allegedly offering a female aide $5 million to serve as a surrogate mother for him and his wife.)
A number of forces have converged to give Democrats a fighting chance in the district, nestled in a section of Maricopa County known as the West Valley.
Chief among them are energized Democratic voters, and grassroots groups that have sprouted since the 2016 election.
Ann Teeters Johnson, who has used the Democratic National Committee’s digital programs to make calls and text messages for Tipirneni, joined Rogue Democratic Women, a 100-person group that organized a Democratic candidate forum during the primary. Tipirneni’s bid has unleashed Democratic pride that has wowed Johnson, who likens the Republican stronghold to hostile territory.
Johnson shows her partisan colors with a bumper sticker that says, “Had Enough? Vote Democratic.” On a number of occasions in recent weeks, people have left notes on her windshield to share their agreement with the sticker’s message.
“I’ve been in Democratic politics a long time and it is a little different,” Johnson said. “I haven’t seen something like this.”
The struggle to increase Arizona teachers’ pay and funding for the state’s schools has only heightened the excitement for Tipirneni’s bid. Tens of thousands of teachers, students, parents and other supporters wore red during a school walkout on April 11, protesting low pay and school budget cuts.
The movement, which they christened #RedforEd, got the attention of Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican up for re-election in November. Ducey vowed to give teachers a 20-percent raise by 2020, and restore education funding. Nonetheless, teachers skeptical that the money would not be cut from other essential services plan a statewide strike on Thursday.
Tipirneni, an ardent supporter of #RedforEd and public-school parent, has found an appealing foil in Lesko, who championed a costly private-school voucher bill. The legislation aroused opposition from many of the same suburban women now attracted to Tipirneni’s bid. While Lesko helped shepherd the bill into law, grassroots resistance to the measure has won voters the opportunity to decide its fate on the November ballot.
Tipirneni, who has focused her campaign on kitchen-table issues like health care, education and retirement, has proven a prodigious fundraiser. As of the beginning of the month, she had raised nearly $180,000 more than Lesko.
But the national cavalry for Lesko, which has more than closed the individual candidates’ fundraising gap, has not been matched by Democratic cash. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which helps elect Democrats to the House, has spent nothing toward Tipirneni’s bid.
The outside GOP money appears to be having an impact. One public poll that showed Tipirneni leading by 1 percentage point two weeks ago, more recently found Lesko with a 6-point lead.
Election watchers pessimistic about Tipirneni’s chances of an upset also point to the makeup of voters who have already cast their ballots in the state’s capacious early voting program. Arizonans have been able to vote in person and by mail since March 28, and the types of voters who have already submitted ballots bode well for Lesko.
Of more than 154,000 ballots already cast, 49 percent of voters were registered Republicans, compared with 28 percent Democrats and 23 percent independents. The median age of the people who have already voted is 67.
National Republicans are already casting a Lesko win as a referendum on progressive health care policies. Tipirneni advocates allowing Americans of all ages to buy into Medicare, as well as offering Medicaid beneficiaries the opportunity to purchase private coverage. But Lesko and national Republicans have dubbed her a proponent of single-payer health care in which the federal government would be the sole insurer for all Americans.
“Hiral Tipirneni will be the first of many single-payer supporters to suffer defeat this year,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Jesse Hunt.
Progressives hope to argue that Tipirneni kept the race close because she ran strongly as a champion of affordable health care, and defender of Social Security and Medicare. Tipirneni has vowed to protect the social insurance programs and denounced the budget-busting GOP tax cuts for creating a political impetus to cut them.
Ady Barkan, an ALS-stricken progressive activist whose “Be A Hero” initiative targets Republicans who voted for, or back the tax cuts, traveled to the district to campaign on Tipirneni’s behalf. While in Arizona, Barkan, who will need Medicare as his body deteriorates, asked Lesko to respond to the stated intentions of several Republican leaders, including House Speaker Ryan and White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, to seek major cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Barkan features a key moment in the exchange in a one-minute ad ― one of two starring Barkan that the progressive Working Families Party has spent $100,000 to air in the district. In the snippet, Lesko tells Barkan, who will be on Medicare, she is “not familiar” with GOP plans to cut social programs.
The video cuts to a Washington Post article from December: “Ryan says Republicans to target welfare, Medicare, Medicaid spending in 2018.”
Lesko “didn’t even know that her agenda would rip health care away from people like me,” Barkan concludes.