GOP Concerns Mount in Arizona Despite 8th District Win
Republicans held on to Arizona’s 8th Congressional District seat in a special election Tuesday, breaking Democrats’ recent winning streak and calming some nerves among conservatives. But that sigh of relief may be fleeting.
Debbie Lesko’s five-percentage-point victory over Hiral Tipirneni marks a significant narrowing of traditional GOP margins in a place Donald Trump won by 20 points, and reflects the opposing party’s over-performance in the majority of congressional elections held during the president’s tenure. The Phoenix-area district had been so reliably Republican that Democrats weren’t even able to field a candidate in the past two elections there. In 2012, Republican Rep. Trent Franks, who resigned in December after allegations he offered a staffer $5 million to carry his child, beat a Democratic challenger by nearly 30 points.
The closeness of the results Tuesday is sending warning signals to Republicans in less-safe districts across the country -- especially since, unlike the party’s loss last month in a Pennsylvania district Trump had overwhelmingly won, this one had such little evidence of Democratic DNA. And the outcome is having a particularly alarming effect among candidates running statewide in Arizona, a longtime GOP bastion that Democrats have been aiming to flip.
“These election results ought to startle Republicans in Arizona and nationally out of bed,” Arizona-based Republican donor and fundraiser Dan Eberhart told RCP. “Winning the Arizona 8th by such a small margin translates to very little margin of error for Gov. Doug Ducey and the eventual GOP Senate nominee in the midterms.”
Democrats’ efforts to turn Arizona their way on the statewide level have so far not borne fruit. Hillary Clinton lost the state in 2016 after mounting a serious challenge there, even visiting Tempe in the final days of the campaign. But both Democrats and Republicans say Arizona offers a much more competitive playing field this time around, particularly in the race for the U.S. Senate.
Trump won the state by only three points, underperforming Mitt Romney’s 10-point victory in 2012. But beyond those statistics, and the state’s gradually changing demographics, both parties say the fundamentals of the Arizona’s long primary calendar and early voting system provide a significant advantage for the Democrats.
Arizona, where Trump critic Jeff Flake is retiring from the Senate, is one of the few states where Senate Democrats are on offense. Though they have to defend 10 seats in states Trump won — five of them by overwhelming margins — the Grand Canyon State provides a rare pickup opportunity. Republicans are engaged in a protracted three-way primary, which won’t be decided until Aug. 28, giving the eventual nominee little time to shift gears and wage a general election campaign. Additionally, early voting begins in October. Meanwhile, Democrats cleared the field for U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, who, free from the burdens of a primary that would have pulled her far to the left, has several months to build broader support.
Establishment Republicans favor Rep. Martha McSally (pictured), a former Air Force colonel who was first female U.S. fighter pilot to fly a combat mission. But she faces a challenge from physician Kelli Ward, who unsuccessfully challenged John McCain for the nomination in 2016, and controversial former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was pardoned by Trump last year after being convicted of criminal contempt of court in a racial profiling case. Flake and Republicans have acknowledged the incumbent senator would have been unlikely to survive a primary with his vocal opposition to the president, and his exit could give Republicans a better shot at keeping the seat, as the eventual nominee will have to hold Trump voters in the state. But there is also concern about the impact the drawn-out primary season could have on the GOP candidate.
“Ask me today, I'd put my money on Sinema,” says veteran Arizona Republican strategist Chuck Coughlin. “She's able to narrate a campaign where McSally is nailed down on the right trying to fend off a crazy sheriff and ‘Chem-Trail’ Kelli.” (The latter refers to opponents’ attempts to tar Ward as a conspiracy theorist.)
Coughlin argues that the 8th District results on Tuesday aren’t indicative of much when it comes to the statewide race, as special elections carry nuance. And while the fundamentals at this point appear to favor Sinema, and Trump’s unpopularity could have an impact among women voters, the candidate still has a lot of work to do in a state like Arizona.
“Democrats counting on getting non-traditional voters to the polls based on their visceral hatred of Trump in a state with a 12-point Republican voter advantage -- that’s not going to be enough,” Coughlin says. “This has been the Democrats' problem for a number of cycles -- it’s ‘What are they for?’ We know what they are against.”
Democrats in the state tend to agree. “Each party is going to be using Trump to get their base voters out,” says state Democratic consultant Bill Scheel. “But at the end of the day, this election is not going to be about Donald Trump that much in November, because we have really strong Arizona issues like education.” Like several other Republican governors in red states, Arizona’s Doug Ducey has faced weeks of protests by teachers concerned about pay and school resources. The governor, who is also up for re-election this year, announced a proposal to increase pay by 20 percent by 2020.
As far as the Senate race is concerned, Democrats argue that health care is still a top driver among base voters. Tipirneni focused on Medicare in her campaign in the 8th District, where the electorate skews toward older voters, including retirees. "If you're looking for an indicator of an anti-Trump wave, there’s more of an indirect one,” says one Democratic operative working on state races. Republican votes to repeal the health care law and to pass a tax reform bill that gutted the individual mandate, which the AARP argued could eventually lead to cuts in Medicare programs, “are those kind of anecdotal points that resonate with Arizona voters more than just ‘The Big T,’” the operative says.
In her first televised ad released earlier this month, Sinema makes no mention of the president — or of her being a Democrat. Instead, it featured her police officer and Marine brother, vouching for her independence.
Republicans will certainly work to undercut that kind of appeal and tie her to the national party. The National Republican Senatorial Committee is already pointing out that Sinema is attracting more funding from outside Arizona than from within. But some GOP’ers note a troubling trend their own party’s candidates are experiencing with independent voters. Arizona Republican pollster Mike Noble found Sinema leading in hypothetical matchups with her Republican competitors, and attributes the edge to independent voters.
“Trump’s favorability rating is directly tied to Republicans down ballot. There's no other conclusion,” Noble says. “I'm a Republicans pollster. I don't want to say that. But if your house is on fire, you want someone to say, ‘Hey, your house is on fire.’”