Leading House Republicans acknowledged Wednesday that a narrow win in a special congressional contest in Arizona was another wake-up call for a party bracing for formidable midterm elections in November.
During a Wednesday morning meeting of the Republican Conference, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told colleagues that Tuesday’s election was further proof that Democrats are motivated to turn out to vote.
“He said, ‘You need to understand what’s happening,’ ” said Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.), whose district borders the 8th District, where the special election was held. “They’ve got money. They’ve got good candidates. They can speak well about issues. And they’re engaged.”
In the closely watched race, Debbie Lesko, a former state lawmaker, turned back a spirited challenge from a first-time Democratic candidate seeking to flip the seat from GOP hands. Lesko defeated Hiral Tipirneni, a physician, by 52.6 percent to 47.4 percent, in a district that President Trump carried by more than 20 points in 2016, according to near-complete results.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), leader of the House Freedom Caucus, said the outcome showed that Republicans needed “to get something done” and excite a base that has become less enthusiastic.
“Obviously, we see the Democrat base very energized,” Meadows said. “Probably 70 percent of Hillary Clinton voters turned out, and 50 percent of Trump voters turned out.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, meanwhile, sought to play down the close margin during a television interview Wednesday morning.
“No offense to this candidate, but she’s not Donald Trump,” Sanders said on Fox News. “It doesn’t matter if you win by 25 points or two points. A win is a win.”
Trump congratulated Lesko in a tweet Wednesday morning. “Debbie will do a Great Job!” the president wrote. He also accused the press of being “so silent” in its coverage of her victory.
Cheers erupted at a private home Tuesday night in the western Phoenix suburbs at Lesko’s election-watch party, where Gov. Doug Ducey (R) and around 70 supporters had gathered.
“Here’s to success. Here’s to Republicans winning this year!” a jubilant Lesko told the group in a toast.
She later emotionally recounted an unexpected journey to Congress, sharing that she had left an abusive husband 25 years ago. “And I sure as heck never would have dreamt in a million years that I would be running for Congress, and be a congresswoman.”
Speaking to supporters at a country club in Glendale, Tipirneni vowed a rematch in November.
“People are looking at CD8 in a very different light tonight, and that’s because something’s happening here,” Tipirneni said. “What it comes down to is I think we knew our community and our district and our neighborhoods a hell of a lot better than the pundits did.”
In Washington, Democrats crowed about what the close margin could mean as November approaches.
“As Democrats build the largest House battlefield in more than a decade, it should terrify vulnerable Republicans that their party had to run a desperate rescue mission to hold on to this deep red seat in Arizona,” said Jacob Peters, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “It proves there is no place in the country where energized, organized Democrats are not ready to compete.”
Republicans, rattled by the loss last month in a special election for a congressional seat in Pennsylvania, welcomed the results in Arizona, as energized Democrats have turned even the most reliable GOP seats competitive. The GOP faces fierce political head winds, the drag of an unpopular president and the retirement of its House leader, Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.).
The Republican Party’s problems were on display in Arizona, as Tipirneni made inroads in reliably Republican areas. The Democrat appeared to carry 58 of the district’s 142 precincts; in 2016, Hillary Clinton carried just 12. The cities of Peoria and Glendale swung toward Tipirneni, as did areas around retiree-heavy Sun City.
Democrats credited those gains to suburban angst about Republicans, and to a campaign that focused heavily on issues such as Medicare and Social Security. Republicans said their victory showed how the party could still run and win.
“Debbie ran a smart campaign and focused in on the issues that voters cared about, like having more take-home pay, fewer regulations and a secure border,” Ryan said. “Her victory proves that Republicans have a positive record to run on this fall, and we need to spend the next seven months aggressively selling our message to the American people.”
Republicans had been cautiously optimistic about prevailing in the 8th Congressional District, where Trent Franks, who resigned last year, had won by 37 points. Still, the GOP took nothing for granted, with party committees and PACs investing more than $1.1 million in ads and get-out-the-vote efforts, and tapping Trump for robo-calls to voters.
Lesko will replace Franks, who stepped down in December after he reportedly offered to pay a female staff member $5 million to carry his child as a surrogate.
The president made a last-minute appeal for Lesko on Tuesday.
“Arizona, please get out today and vote @DebbieLesko for Congress in #AZ08. Strong on Border, Immigration and Crime. Great on the Military. Time is ticking down - get out and VOTE today. We need Debbie in Congress!” he said via Twitter.
Democrats, who did not invest in the race as heavily as they had in other special elections, said the numbers represented a promising swing toward their party.
In the days leading up to the special election, Republicans ramped up the rhetoric in hopes of getting their voters to the polls.
On Saturday, Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) told volunteers at Lesko’s canvass launch that national liberals were using the special election to “radicalize” their base and raise money.
“It’s a group from the other side of the country trying to get a bunch of people to give them $25 to build a bigger list for the next election,” Schweikert said. “They basically are the parasite class using our community for their radical politics. We need to crush them.”
In one of Lesko’s final interviews before Tuesday’s vote, she told conservative activist Lloyd Marcus that a victory could hold off the Democrats who had grown more confident after election upsets in Alabama, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
“Some of these radical groups really want to take over our country,” Lesko said. “They use protesters. They lie. They’re deceptive. They want to, in my opinion, destroy the principles that make this country great.”
Strategists for both parties had expected Lesko to win. Republican optimism was based in large part on early voters, who had cast 154,076 ballots by Friday. Nearly half of the returned ballots, 48.5 percent, were cast by Republicans; just 27.7 percent were cast by Democrats. The average age of all district residents is 43; the average early voter was 68 years old.
In the race’s final weeks, Tipirneni argued that crossover voters would keep the race close and give her a shot at an upset. Her campaign focused heavily on Medicare; she told voters that she would strengthen the program by allowing younger Americans to buy into it, and she warned that the sort of tax cuts supported by Lesko would put the program at risk.
“In our office, not a day goes by that people don’t come in and say, ‘I’m a Republican, but I’m voting for you,’ ” Tipirneni told a local Fox News affiliate Sunday.
Lesko had the support of a trio of Republican groups that moved to shore up the seat after the upset win by Democrat Conor Lamb in a special election in Pennsylvania on March 13. Together, the Republican National Committee, National Republican Congressional Committee and Congressional Leadership Fund spent more than $900,000 on the Arizona race, almost all of it dedicated to turning out Republican votes.
In his robo-call, Trump warned that “illegal immigrants will pour right over your border” if Democrats win the House. “Nancy Pelosi wants to send a liberal Democrat to Congress to represent you,” Trump said in the call, referring to the House minority leader. “We can’t have that.”
Lesko tied herself to Trump, and her most prominent television ad told voters that she would help the president fund a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. But that message seemed to have lost some power, as Democrats grew more intense about organizing and voting.
“This is a solid red state,” said Glenn Hamer, president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “Off-year elections are always difficult for the party in the White House. It wasn’t easy for the last president, and so far not for this president.”
Evan Wyloge in Peoria, Ariz., contributed to this report.