WASHINGTON – When Republican Debbie Lesko won the April special election to fill former Rep. Trent Frank’s 8th District seat in Congress, it was a surprisingly close win over an unexpectedly well-funded Democrat, Hiral Tipirneni.
Nov. 6 is starting to look like April 24 all over again.
A recent poll shows Lesko leading Tipirneni by 4 percentage points in their rematch next week in the heavily Republican district, a number that’s within the poll’s margin of error. And Tipirneni goes into the general election having raised and spent roughly twice as much as Lesko since the special election, according to their most recent filings with the Federal Election Commission.
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But so far, Lesko’s supporters are confident that the results next week won’t be any different from their last election.
“I think it might be somewhat close, maybe closer, but I think it will be at that 5 (point advantage) if not maybe a little better for Lesko,” said Mike Noble, chief pollster at OH Predictive Insights, who said he expects higher Republican turnout this fall than in the special election.
Democrats are optimistic, however, and excited to even be having the conversation in a district where they are outnumbered by registered Republicans almost 2-to-1.
“Hiral Tipirneni is a charismatic candidate, she overperformed in the special election and she really has been able to maintain that energy, and I think that’s what you’re seeing reflected in these fundraising numbers,” said Bill Scheel, political consultant at Javelina in Phoenix. He said the special election results spoke to “the enthusiasm of Democratic small-dollar voters.”
“I think it’s really fascinating that here we are a week out and talking about CD 8 as a potential upset,” Scheel said.
With less than three weeks to the election, Tipirneni reported having raised close to $1.6 million and having spent almost $1.5 million from May to Oct. 17, the date of the last FEC filing. Lesko reported raising $688,541 and spending $404,068 in the same period. Lesko had $364,412 in cash on hand to Tipirneni’s $203,520 in the same filing.
But Tipirneni’s fundraising advantage could be offset by heavy spending by outside groups on the races – both the special and general elections – for the 8th District seat.
Those groups have spent more than $300,000 supporting Tipirneni or opposing Lesko, while they have spent more than $1.3 million in Lesko’s favor – although it’s hard to know how much of that spending came during a bitterly fought Republican primary before the special election.
As the fundraising and spending has grown, one poll released Sept. 27 found the race tightening, with 44 percent of 400 likely voters favoring Tipirneni to 48 percent for Lesko in a two-day telephone poll with a 4.9 percent margin of error.
Still, most analysts see the race as a fairly safe bet for Republicans. The 8th District, including Glendale, Peoria and Surprise, is a historically Republican one that President Donald Trump carried by 21 points in 2016.
Lesko has run as a Trump Republican, but a campaign staffer for Tipirneni said that “hanging your hat on a Trump performance really misses the current relevance.”
“We closed that gap in the special election to less than five points which means independents, who tend to be conservative in this district, voted for Hiral, and a sizable portion of Republicans crossed over,” said Jason Kimbrough, the Tipirneni campaign’s communications director.
But Noble said that Republican enthusiasm is different now than it was in the special election, when only 40 percent of eligible voters turned out.
“What I think has changed since that time is that Republicans, since the (Supreme Court Justice Brett) Kavanaugh confirmation, have consolidated a bit more,” Noble said. “There’s nothing really there that shows that there’s going to be a surprise, I mean it’s been a solid red district for a long time.”
Republican enthusiasm appears to be showing up in early voting in the district, according to the latest numbers from the Arizona Secretary of State’s office. It said Republicans, who account for 41 percent of registered voters in the district, had cast 49.4 percent of the early ballots to 27 percent for Democrats, who account for 25 percent of 8th District voters.
Kimbrough said Tipirneni’s campaign is counting on independents and disenchanted Republicans to help put them over the top.
“We feel that the more people vote in our district the better we’re going to do, because Hiral’s campaign has always been about the district, not about the parties,” he said.
Lesko spokesman said Barrett Marson said the campaign remains confident that, in the end, voters will decide Tipirneni is just too liberal for the district.
“The important thing is to vote. Congresswoman Lesko won last time, there isn’t a poll that has come out that has shown anything but Lesko ahead in this race, and that’s what we’re looking at,” he said.