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Democrats hope for an upset in an Arizona House special election — but this district is likely to stay red

  • Republicans hope to avoid another upset loss in Arizona's 8th District House special election.
  • Republican Debbie Lesko is running against Democrat Hiral Tipirneni on Tuesday.
  • Lesko appears to have an advantage based on early voting trends.
  • However, even a loss for Tipirneni could be good news for Democrats, depending on the margin.
In this photo taken April 19, 2018, campaign signs from both CD8 candidates adorn the main entrance sign to the city of Glendale in Glendale, Ariz. A special election is being held Tuesday to fill the seat left open by Republican Rep. Trent Franks, as Republican Debbie Lesko and Democratic candidate Dr. Hiral Tipirneni square off.
Anita Snow | AP
In this photo taken April 19, 2018, campaign signs from both CD8 candidates adorn the main entrance sign to the city of Glendale in Glendale, Ariz. A special election is being held Tuesday to fill the seat left open by Republican Rep. Trent Franks, as Republican Debbie Lesko and Democratic candidate Dr. Hiral Tipirneni square off.

Democrats aim for another special election upset in a red area, this time in Arizona, but Republicans appear poised to avoid their second national debacle in two months.

Even if Republicans on Tuesday hold on to the House seat outside of Phoenix, Democrats hope they can add to a string of races in which they outperformed 2016 results in GOP-leaning pockets of the country. The ability to improve in red regions is critical for Democrats as they try to win the 23 GOP-held House seats needed to take a majority in the chamber in November.

Demographics and strong Republican leanings give the GOP a strong cushion in its effort to hold on to Arizona's 8th District House seat. The office was vacated when Republican Rep. Trent Franks — who held it since 2003 — resigned amid a sexual harassment scandal.

The election pits GOP state Sen. Debbie Lesko against Democratic former physician Hiral Tipirneni. Polling of the race has been limited and results have varied, but early voting patterns appear to favor Lesko.

While Tipirneni had raised more money and had more cash on hand than Lesko as of earlier this month, the Republican got a boost from national GOP groups trying to avoid another upset. Sensing a possible threat following a Democratic special election win in Pennsylvania, national Republicans injected some cash into the race.

Outside organizations including the National Republican Congressional Committee have spent about $740,000 supporting Lesko, while groups have put just under $50,000 toward opposing her, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Meanwhile, outside groups have dropped more than $500,000 in anti-Tipirneni spending, compared with only about $230,000 spent to back her campaign. National Democratic Party groups have not gotten involved.

Early voting favors Lesko in red district 

Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb's triumph in Pennsylvania's 18th District, which President Donald Trump won by about 20 percentage points in 2016, gave Democrats fresh hopes about their ability to compete in areas the president carried easily. The House election followed Democratic Sen. Doug Jones' win in a special election in deep red Alabama last year.

But the dynamics in Tuesday's Arizona race pose a more serious challenge for Democrats.

Trump won about 57 percent of the vote in the district during the 2016 election, compared with about 36 percent for Democrat Hillary Clinton, according to Cook Political Report. Franks won re-election that year with more than 68 percent of the vote.

Those figures bear some similarities to Pennsylvania's 18th District: former Rep. Tim Murphy carried the district unopposed in 2016 while Trump won the area easily. However, the districts have at least one key difference: More voters are registered as Democrats in the Pennsylvania district than as Republicans. Arizona's 8th District, on the other hand, has about 80,000 more registered Republicans than registered Democrats, according to nonpartisan elections site Sabato's Crystal Ball.

The 150,000-plus early votes cast in the special election echo those divisions. Nearly half of the voters who have cast ballots in the district so far are registered Republicans, according to data from the state of Arizona. That compares with only about 28 percent registered as Democrats and roughly 23 percent registered as independents.

Of course, a Republican registration does not necessarily mean the voter casts a ballot for Lesko. Tipirneni would need independents and Republicans to vote Democratic to have any chance of winning.

But the voters so far have leaned older. The median age of the early voters is 67 years old, while the average age of voters is about 64 years old. Older voters tend to lean Republican.

The trends so far suggest a comfortable margin of victory for Lesko, according to Chuck Coughlin, president and CEO of Arizona-based consultancy firm HighGround. Even if Tipirneni outperforms the presidential results by 10 percentage points or more, which would be consistent with special elections since Trump won the White House, Lesko could win by a solid margin.

A Lesko win in a district Trump won by more than 20 percentage points is not necessarily bad news for Democrats. The party has dozens of chances to pick up districts either won by Clinton in 2016 or carried by Trump but with a tight margin of victory.

The candidates 

Both the Pennsylvania and Alabama special elections featured some form of a disparity between candidates that helped Democrats win. In Pennsylvania, Lamb easily raised more money than his opponent, Republican Rick Saccone, forcing outside GOP groups to spend heavily to keep up.

In Alabama, Republican candidate Roy Moore faced allegations of sexually abusing teenagers decades ago.

No major difference in campaign or candidate quality exists in the Arizona race. Tipirneni has outraised Lesko by about $170,000. Lamb more than tripled Saccone's fundraising haul in Pennsylvania.

Lesko, who has represented parts of the 8th District at the state level, has espoused views largely in line with mainstream Republicans. She has supported higher military spending, limited physical barriers on the U.S. border with Mexico and tax cuts and simplification. Lesko has endorsements from law enforcement groups, the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List and the pro-business U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Tipirneni's views, meanwhile, align largely with mainstream Democrats. She pledges to protect Social Security and Medicare, opposes major tax cuts for corporations and supports the expansion of Medicaid, the federal and state health-care program for low-income people. She has gotten endorsements from Emily's List, an organization that aims to elect pro-choice women, and former and current members of Congress such as Gabby Giffords.