Republicans Avoid An Upset In Tight Arizona Special Election
Updated at 7:15 a.m. ET
Republicans defended a congressional seat in Arizona on Tuesday, avoiding another special election upset with a tight victory in a typically strong GOP district.
Republican Debbie Lesko, a former state senator, defeated Democrat Hiral Tipirneni, a physician new to politics, but Lesko's lead was only about five percent, in a district where Republicans typically dominate.
Lesko won 52.6 percent of the vote, with Tipirneni getting 47.4 percent. Donald Trump won the district in 2016 by 21 points. In 2016, the former GOP congressman won the seat with more than 68 percent of the vote. Rep. Trent Franks resigned in December over allegations of sexual harassment.
The Associated Press projected the race on Tuesday night shortly after initial results were reported.
"Her victory proves that Republicans have a positive record to run on this fall," House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement praising Lesko's victory on Tuesday night. Ryan allies got involved in the race to ensure there was no Democratic upset.
The race in the conservative 8th Congressional District northwest of Phoenix was watched closely after special election shockers in recent months in Pennsylvania and Alabama, where Democrats won a House seat and a Senate seat, respectively, in territory where Republicans had been in control for years.
Early voting numbers showed Republicans turned in almost 49 percent of the ballots, Democrats about 28 percent and independents 23 percent. But Lesko was taking no chances, telling her supporters on Saturday that "we are in the fight of our lives."
"This isn't like the normal, everyday elections that happen in November, where Trent Franks had won by a whole bunch because nobody really challenged him," Lesko said ahead of the vote. "The entire nation is looking at Arizona, because it's the only game in town right now."
The Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee together spent over $900,000 on the race. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican superPAC aligned with Speaker Ryan, spent about $100,000. That's far below the approximately $10.6 million conservative groups spent on Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, which Democrats flipped in March.
Democratic groups have spent far less on the Arizona race. The Democratic National Committee, like the RNC, sent in staff. The Working Families Party's superPAC spent $100,000 to support Tipirneni. (Liberal groups spent $1.8 million in Pennsylvania.)
As a candidate, Tipirneni outraised Lesko by almost $200,000.
Lesko, a former state lawmaker, is well-known in the district for her work on laws allowing golf carts to be driven on the side of the road, expanding the state's school voucher program and reforming public safety pensions.
Even though Tipirneni was unsuccessful, she has said she will run again in November.
"Nobody should be getting into office to represent hundreds of thousands of people by default. And that is what has been happening in this district for much too long," she told her volunteers and staff at a high school auditorium over the weekend, hoping for an upset on Tuesday.
Candidates in other Arizona races were watching this result. Rep. Martha McSally, a Republican running for the U.S. Senate in what is expected to be a tight general election race, joined Lesko at her pre-canvassing pep rally.
"They'll be analyzing," McSally said, referring to pundits. "And then that's all gonna be about like, 'Ooh, this is an indication for November.' Okay? So, she has got to crush this."
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