By Jim EllisApril 26, 2018 — Arizona Republican former state Senate President Debbie Lesko defeated physician Hiral Tipirneni (D) last night, 53-47 percent, to win the vacant 8th District seat that former Rep. Trent Franks (R-Peoria) resigned in January.
Lesko held the seat for Republicans with a high turnout of 173,708 voters, but her six-point win is being cast in the media as an under-performance. Dr. Tipirneni, however, ran a significant campaign and will spend a projected financial number in the $1 million range. Therefore, it’s not particularly surprising that a credible candidate spending significant resources would place in the mid-high 40s despite her opponent’s party being dominant in the region. Lesko will likely spend a bit less than Dr. Tipirneni but received stronger outside support, particularly from the national Republican Party apparatus.
Though Rep. Franks averaged 69.2 percent during his three terms with the district in its present configuration, he did so against candidates who spent virtually no money. In 2014, when he drew 75 percent of the vote, he didn’t have a Democratic opponent. When Franks first won in open configuration back in 2002, his initial win percentage was 59 percent against a candidate who spent only $40,000.
The most recent polls correctly forecast the outcome. Emerson College, the pollster conducting the only two publicly released polls during the period immediately preceding the election (April 19-23; 400 likely AZ-8 special election voters: Lesko 49 percent, Tipirneni 43 percent), correctly predicted a Lesko six-point victory. A week earlier the same pollster (Emerson College; April 12-15; 400 likely special election voters) actually found Dr. Tipirneni forging a small one-point lead.
AZ-8 becomes the fourth congressional district during the present campaign cycle to feature a special election where the turnout (173,708 voters) was actually higher than the most recent midterm election (2014). In that previous year, 169,776 voters participated, ranking it fifth among the state’s nine federal districts in turnout. In the last presidential contest (2016), 298,971 voters cast their ballots, thus positioning the 8th District as fourth in participation among the nine Arizona CDs during the most recent general election.
Though reports cite the increase in Democratic turnout as a “surge”, Republicans still won three of the four races indicating that their voters are also participating at an above average rate in current special elections. And the one race they lost, PA-18 to Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pittsburgh), turnout percentage is difficult to compare with the previous midterm because the former incumbent, then-Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pittsburgh), ran unopposed for re-election in 2014.
The 8th District is self-contained within northwestern Maricopa County, and contains the cities of Peoria, Surprise, Sun City West, and Litchfield. President Trump carried the seat 58-37 percent, while Mitt Romney posted a 62-37 percent margin. Arizona’s own Sen. John McCain recorded a 61-38 percent spread within the current 8th District confines when he was the 2008 Republican presidential nominee.
Lesko will now file for a full term before Arizona’s May 30 candidate filing deadline in preparation for the Aug. 28 state primary. It is unknown whether Dr. Tipirneni will contest the new congresswoman in the regular term.
The House returns to having four vacancies in the short term; MI-13 (Conyers-D); NY-25 (Slaughter-D); OH-12 (Tiberi-R), and TX-27 (Farenthold-R). Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Allentown) has announced that he will resign from Congress in May, thus soon returning the total to five.