Politics

Spotlight Faded but the Race for Arizona’s 8th District Never Ended

Tipirneni came up short in special election, but will November be any different?

Hiral Tipirneni speaks during a meeting with supporters Monday at the Rio Vista Recreation Center in Peoria, Ariz. The Arizona Democrat is challenging Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., in the 8th District. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

PEORIA, Ariz. — Hiral Tipirneni asked how many people gathered at the Rio Vista Recreation Center here Monday night had a pre-existing health condition. Almost everyone raised their hand.

“All of these great provisions of the [2010 health care law] are being eroded away,” she told the town hall audience, referring to a White House proposal announced earlier that day to allow states to waive some of the law’s requirements. “That is why I am running. Because I refuse — I refuse to see this happen to our country.”  

This the campaign that Tipirneni has been running ever since the national spotlight moved on from Arizona’s 8th District in the Phoenix suburbs after the Democrat lost an April special election to Republican Debbie Lesko by 5 points in a seat President Donald Trump won by 21 points in 2016. 

Lesko, while acknowledging she isn’t taking anything for granted this time, put down the close April result to the nationwide attention on the race. But some Democrats are optimistic Tipirneni has kept up the momentum since then. 

“It’s a really dark horse race,” said DJ Quinlan, the former executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party.

Watch: 12 Ratings Changes for House, Senate and Gubernatorial Races — 4 Toward GOP, 8 Toward Democrats

Making a race 

Democrat Conor Lamb’s surprise victory in a deep-red Pennsylvania district in March brought new focus to the 8th District special election to replace GOP Rep. Trent Franks, who resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct. Money poured into Tipirneni’s campaign, but some Democrats said it came too late in a race where the vast majority of ballots were cast early.

So how could Tipirneni, a former emergency room physician and cancer research advocate, win in November after falling short in April?

For starters, she noted she only had eight weeks before the primary and the special election in April. But she’s had the last six months to talk to voters.

“We know that having more time is having the opportunity to get our message out, that we have the opportunity to engage in more independents and even more moderate Republicans while also keeping our base very energized,” she said Monday after her town hall.

The early attention has helped her post strong fundraising numbers. In the third quarter, which ended Sept. 30, she raised $668,000 — more than twice the $320,000 Lesko brought in. The incumbent did have a cash-on-hand advantage of $508,000 to Tipirneni’s $469,000.

Lesko, a former state lawmaker, has also been staying active, ramping up constituent services while adjusting to her new role as congresswoman.

“It would be really nice if I could win by a bigger margin because this is a conservative district,” she said in an interview after a fundraiser here Tuesday. “My values are just more closely aligned with the district, and I’ve just served in part of this district for such a long time.”

Last-minute drama

For many Democrats, just having a competitive race for the conservative-leaning seat is a new experience. (Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Likely Republican.)

As Tipirneni addressed a friendly audience here Monday night, several people thanked her simply for running in the traditionally Republican district.

“She’s so viable. She’s not just somebody they stuck up there because we needed somebody,” Donna Koehler, a 69-year-old Democrat from Peoria, said.

Public polling has been scarce in the race. The most recent survey, conducted by Lake Research Partners for Tipirneni’s campaign in late September, gave Lesko a 4-point lead, 48 percent to 44 percent.

But Republicans maintain a solid 41 percent to 25 percent voter-registration advantage over Democrats in the district, with 33 percent not registered with any party.

The race has taken a negative turn, with a back-and-forth over Lesko’s campaign signs that called Tipirneni a “fake doctor.” Lesko’s team eventually removed the signs amid pressure from the Arizona Medical Association, which had endorsed her.

But the group revoked its endorsement after Lesko declined to take down a television ad that suggested Tipirneni was pretending to be a doctor. The congresswoman told The Arizona Republic that she “won’t be bullied by a special-interest group to take down a truthful ad.”

Tipirneni, who appears in ads wearing scrubs and whose campaign signs note she is “Dr. Hiral Tipirneni,” has not been a practicing physician for more than 10 years but maintains her medical license. The issue came up during the special election as well, and Tipirneni has said she shifted to advocating cancer research after losing her mother and nephew to the disease.

Different views 

While Tipirneni has stressed health care and protecting Medicare and Social Security in her campaign, Lesko said her constituents are most concerned about illegal immigration. She’s now a member of the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus.

But speaking to supporters Tuesday at TYR Tactical, a manufacturer of body armor for military and law enforcement, Lesko described herself as a “pragmatic conservative.”

Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., speaks with supporters at TYR Tactical in Peoria, Ariz.(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Lesko speaks with supporters at TYR Tactical in Peoria, Ariz., on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

She noted her support for continuing GOP efforts to overhaul the tax code. The owners of TYR Tactical said they’ve been able to hire more than 100 people and distribute $400,000 in bonuses since the tax law took effect

Lesko called Tipirneni too liberal for the district, arguing that her health care plan would eventually lead to a government-controlled system.

Tiprineni countered that her support for Medicare as a public option was evidence she is a more moderate Democrat. (She does not support a single payer or Medicare-for-All system). She said her campaign’s focus on health care and retirement security have kept the race close.

“What got us to being less than 5 points in April hasn’t changed,” she said. “We’ve been talking about the same issues.”

Some Republicans see the closeness of the special election and potentially the November race as a blip — a temporary by-product of the energy boosting Democrats across the country this cycle.

“That district will return to an 18-plus [Republican] district,” said Robert Graham, theformer chairman of the Arizona Republican Party.

But Tipirneni disagreed. Win or lose, she said voters will continue to demand that their representatives work for their votes.

“People have woken up,” she said. “And they are not going to go back to sleep in this district.”

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