Arizonans will head to the polls Tuesday to vote in a special election between Republican Debbie Lesko and Democrat Hiral Tipirneni, who are vying to replace former Republican Rep. Trent Franks. Franks resigned from Congress amid a sexual misconduct scandal last December.
The district outside of Phoenix is staunchly conservative. Franks was a Freedom Caucus member and ran unopposed in 2014 and 2016; popular former Republican governor Jan Brewer is also from the district. President Donald Trump carried the district by 21 points in the 2016 presidential election.
Tipirneni, a former emergency room doctor, is running with a built-in disadvantage against Lesko, a longtime Republican state legislator. Democrats make up less than 25 percent of the electorate in the state, while Republicans make up just more than 40 percent.
“There’s a lot of chatter about this race and I think a lot of people are projecting a lot of wishful thinking,” Brian Seitchik, who was the Arizona state director of Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Still, both Democratic and Republican strategists say Tipirneni could benefit from the surge of Democratic enthusiasm that has turned previously non-competitive congressional districts across the country into tight races.
“A Republican clearly will be successful” in the race to replace Franks, Barry Dill, an Arizona-based Democratic strategist, said. But even if Tipirneni loses by single digits, Dill said, “Democrats are going to claim victory.”
Here are the key factors to watch in Tuesday’s race.
The early vote: Arizona is an early voting state and this district is an early voting district, which means the election should be called soon after the polls close. More than 150,000 ballots were cast prior to Election Day, according to the Arizona Secretary of State. Tipirneni must win the day-of vote to keep the final tally close, Dill said.
The issues: Tipirneni has made healthcare the centerpiece of her campaign. She has called for protecting Social Security and Medicare benefits, and supports legislation to expand Medicaid in Arizona. As a state legislator, Lesko represented a considerable part of the congressional district, and voted against a state bill to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Though it’s a conservative district, the median age of its constituents is 67, so there is a higher-than-average interest in maintaining entitlement programs and lowering prescription drug prices. Nevertheless, Lesko’s campaign has focused on border security and immigration. She fully supports building the border wall, ending “catch-and-release” immigration policies and enhancing e-verify programs. Tipirneni, on the other hand, supports protections for “Dreamers,” the young, undocumented immigrants brought to the country illegally as children who are shielded from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
The money: Weeks after Democrat Conor Lamb pulled off a victory in a special election in Pennsylvania’s reliably conservative 18th congressional district, the National Republican Congressional Committee dropped a $170,000 television ad buy in the Arizona race. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a PAC that supports Republicans, spent more than $100,000 in get-out-the-vote efforts in the district. The Republican National Committee has invested money in Lesko’s ground game as well. On the left, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has largely stayed out of the race. Still, Tipirneni has out-raised her opponent, enjoying a $70,000 cash-on-hand advantage as of the beginning of April.