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Arizona's special election is the next big test for the blue wave

Democrats are hoping to ride the surge of anti-Trump grassroots activism to snatch an unexpected victory.

by Alex Thompson
Apr 24 2018, 11:30am

In a case of cosmic justice, Arizona Republican Rep. Trent Franks will be replaced by a woman.

Franks resigned in December after reports surfaced that he had repeatedly pressured younger female staffers about carrying a surrogate child for him and his wife (including possibly impregnating them by having sex) along with other unwanted sexual advances.

And there are two women vying for his seat in the 8th District: When voters in the Western Phoenix suburbs go to the polls on Tuesday, they’ll be choosing between Republican Debbie Lesko and Democrat Hiral Tipirneni.

The race should be a layup for Republicans as Donald Trump won the nearly 90 percent white district by 21 points in 2016 (no Democrat ran against Franks in 2016 or 2014). The area has no recent history of Democratic activism, but Democrats are hoping to yet again ride the surge of anti-Trump grassroots activism to snatch an unexpected victory.

It would be just the latest overperformance by Democrats, who've seen a series of victories in conservative areas since the 2016 election, including Conor Lamb’s narrow victory last month in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, where Trump won by 20 points in 2016. There’s scant polling from anyone other than a few partisan firms.

If Democrats win or come close, it will be another sign of a so-called wave election this November when Democrats hope to take back the House of Representatives and potentially the Senate. If Republicans cruise to victory, they will take it as a sign that Republicans can hold onto the House and Senate. At least, that’s what both parties will tell their donors Wednesday morning to convince them to give more money.

Here’s what else you need to know:

Who are the candidates?

Lesko is a former state assemblywoman and state senator (she’s resigned that seat to run for Congress) who has been a longtime Republican Party activist, rising through the ranks of the local and state party before running for office. In the assembly, she helped pass a law allowing for golf carts to be driven on the shoulder of roads and then celebrated with a 100-strong golf cart parade. Lesko’s district included many senior communities where the golf cart is a popular mode of transport.

Tipirneni, by contrast, is a former physician and political neophyte who has attempted to turn her lack of experience into an asset by arguing that it’s time for an outsider. She has embraced that identity in ads by wearing scrubs.

It’s a Trump Republican vs. a progressive Democrat

Despite the race being relatively close, both candidates have staked out positions outside the mushy middle. Lesko has embraced Trump and has demanded that Congress appropriate $25 billion for his border wall. "The constituents in my district want a secure border. They want a border wall, they want more border agents, better technology and they want to know who's coming across the border,” Lesko said in a televised debate.

She added a little extra oomph to the issue by airing an ad called “Build the Wall”

Tipirneni has taken a right-leaning approach to immigration, opposing the wall but calling for drones and more agents to patrol the border, but she has taken unapologetically liberal stances on gun control, allowing Americans to buy into a Medicare-like option, and denouncing the Republican tax plan as “atrocious” and a giveaway to the rich.

Just two years ago, a Democrat running competitively in this district on those positions would have been unthinkable. But in the aftermath of the 2016 election, the party and its grassroots activists have moved further to the left. The party’s grassroots have fueled Tipirneni’s fundraising, allowing her to outraise her Republican opponent $740,000 to $564,000.

The national Democratic Party has stayed on the sidelines, but Republicans are spending big

Three outside Republican groups have spent over $900,000 on the race in order to boost Lesko and avoid losing a winnable seat. The Democratic National Committee and its congressional arm, however, have largely stayed out of the race, suggesting they don’t think Tipirneni has a good chance of winning. If she barely loses, expect some progressive activists to complain about the party not living up to its promise of competing everywhere.

A lot of people have already voted

More than 151,000 ballots had already been returned as of April 19, likely more than half of the total votes. Those voters appeared to lean Republican, but it’s impossible to know how they voted.

49 percent of the ballots were cast by registered Republicans, 28 percent by registered Democrats, and 23 percent by Independents. Democrats are fighting an uphill battle come election night.

Whoever wins has to win again in November

The winner will have to keep running her campaign and begin fundraising again starting Wednesday in order to win this November. It’s possible the loser may even announce she's going to run again, meaning that there will be a rematch this fall.

And with Congress not confronting many issues for the rest of the year besides re-election, Tuesday’s election may mean more for the national political narrative than it does for actual governing over the next 7 months.

Cover Image: Democratic candidate for the Arizona 8th Congressional District special election Dr. Hiral Tipirneni, left, talks with a supporter at a local restaurant in Sun City, Arizona. Tipirneni is running against former Arizona Republican state Sen. Debbie Lesko in a special election to fill the seat vacated by Republican Rep. Trent Franks. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

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