Republicans desperately dumped a ton of money into the Arizona race, and the seat still swung 32 points toward Democrats.
The special election in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District is over, and the Republican candidate, former state Sen. Debbie Lesko, just managed to pull off a win over Democrat Hiral Tipirneni.
But it was a victory that came at a steep cost.
This district, vacated last year after Rep. Trent Franks resigned over a sexual harassment scandal, should never have been competitive. Situated in the northwest suburbs of Phoenix, and including the Sun City retirement community, the district’s residents are overwhelmingly old, white, and Republican — a solid Trump demographic.
But on Tuesday, Lesko only won the district by 5 points — a whopping 32 point swing toward Democrats. In fact, out of 142 precincts in the district, Republicans underperformed their 2016 margin in 140 of them.
That was not for lack of Republican effort. Trump endorsed Lesko and made robocalls on her behalf. House Speaker Paul Ryan held a fundraiser for her in D.C last week.
And the party spent a lot of money to hold on to the seat: over $1 million, $900,000 of which came from the RNC and the National Republican Congressional Committee. Unlike in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, Republican fundraising was strong, but they still underperformed by the same amount.
Even more ominously for the GOP, they underperformed even though turnout was about the same as in the general election in 2014.
In many recent Democratic victories, Republican voters simply stayed home — which might have given the GOP hope that the Democratic advantage would fizzle out when regularly scheduled elections begin and everyone votes as normal. But Tuesday, Republicans overwhelmingly showed up, and the Democratic advantage was still there.
And to cap it all, Democrats did not even need to run a moderate message to make this deep red district so close. Tipirneni, an emergency room physician, ran an unapologetically progressive campaign, championing health care expansion and opposing the GOP tax scam. It is yet another sign that these two issues are going to be major drivers of Democratic votes throughout the entire nation.
None of this was lost on Republicans. Party strategist Chuck Coughlin bluntly called the result “not good,” while Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake said the outcome is a “warning shot” at his party. Even Lesko herself had said she hoped “to win by double digits,” something she utterly failed to do.
“Regardless of the exact outcome,” tweeted the New York Times’ Nate Cohn, “this is just another terrible special election result for Republicans. Zero excuse, given the permanent absentee list. And you’re feeling great if you’re, say, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Arizona.”
And indeed, a recent poll shows the Democratic candidate, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, is beating all three Republican hopefuls.
“There just aren’t any excuses,” Cohn continued. “The Republican wasn’t Roy Moore. The Democrat wasn’t Conor Lamb. The turnout wasn’t low. The district doesn’t have, say, a latent Democratic tradition. It oddly has the effect of making all the prior excuses seem less relevant, too.”
Republicans won this battle. But the numbers make very clear that they are losing the war.