In these early days of the 8th Congressional District special election, little attention – if any – has been paid to the two Democratic candidates running in the overwhelmingly red stronghold.
Dr. Hiral Tipirneni, an emergency room physician, and Brianna Westbrook, a transgender woman working in the automotive industry, according to her campaign bio, entered the race while Franks was still in office and was presumed to be running for re-election. And both are still in now that Franks is out and an expedited process to replace him is in full-swing.
Both claim strong grassroots support and hope to ride on their image as political outsiders making their first runs for office.
Unfortunately for them, even Democratic consultants don’t think that will be enough to make CD8 a real contest.
The special election already features an increasingly crowded Republican field, which as of publication includes state Sen. Steve Montenegro and former legislators Phil Lovas and Bob Stump. Others are expected to join the hunt in the coming days.
The special primary will be held on February 27, followed by the general election on April 24. Candidates have until January 10 to file paperwork to officially enter the race.
Former House Minority Leader Chad Campbell said chances are slim that a Democrat stands a chance in the special general election.
The numbers certainly don’t bode well. Republicans outnumber Democrats, 187,234 to 109,467, according to the most recent voter registration numbers from the Secretary of State’s Office.
And Campbell said there isn’t likely to be much Dem money funneled into that race, especially considering more competitive congressional districts may be up for grabs.
Instead, he said the focus will be on Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema’s seat and, presumably, Republican Rep. Martha McSally’s, who is expected to vacate for a Senate run.
Campbell said those seats are must-wins for Democrats if they want any shot at getting a majority in the House, so there won’t be much to spare for CD8 in terms of resources.
Even if there was, neither Tipirneni nor Westbrook is likely to be the right candidate when even a higher profile contender would have little chance at success.
“You need a rural Democrat for that district,” Campbell said. “But again, I’m not sure that candidate exists right now. And even if that candidate did exist, I don’t know that there would be money there.”
Consultant Andy Barr said Democrats’ ability to make a stand will depend heavily on who wins the Republican nomination, as demonstrated in Alabama, and he suspects donors will need to see reliable data showing a competitive general election before serious money comes into play.
“There is just such an appetite for wins right now on our side,” he said. “But we have a lot of objectives this cycle and very real objectives. These guys [running in CD8] are going to struggle.”
But Barr also said Republican candidates will likely find more of a challenge than they’re expecting.
“These guys coming over from the Legislature are in for a rude awakening because nobody knows who the hell they are,” he said. “They’ll think they’re starting with an advantage, but the truth is they’re not. The name ID on these guys is going to be nonexistent.”
Barr did predict one advantage for both candidates from his side of the aisle: They’re women. He said much of the recent energy in the party has been sparked by women activists.
Still, the special primary winner will have to prove she can inspire a movement and bring together the other pieces of a true contender.
“If we have a superior candidate in a superior campaign and get lucky, we can win this seat. But we need those things to align,” Barr said.
“They’re going to have to get good really quick, and that’s true of both the candidates and the campaigns. These guys are going to go from obscurity to having to perform at a very high level very quickly.”
Westbrook said she’s been “playing to win” since March when she filed to take on Franks.
She’s not especially concerned about Tipirneni, and she disagrees with the assumption that the district will swing Republican even if that’s what the numbers show.
“They’re looking for someone to believe in,” she said. “We just haven’t ran a candidate here in two election cycles, so the Democratic Party has nothing really to stand on in this district.”
But while Westbrook said she has focused more on reaching the people of CD8 and less on money – “I’m not buying my way through this election” – Tipirneni may have a funding advantage.
Consultant DJ Quinlan, who’s working for Tipirneni’s campaign, said she has fundraising powers and a story that will resonate with voters.
Tipirneni has more than $120,000 on-hand, according to the most recent Federal Election Commission data.
Quinlan pointed to Democrat Doug Jones’ upset victory over staunch Republican Roy Moore in Alabama’s special election for U.S. Senate as proof that even Republican bases cannot be written off as sure things for conservative candidates.
“A creepy congressman in a scandal is the context by which you have the special election,” he said, drawing a connection to the circumstances under which Jones was elected and Franks, who resigned last week after two women said he discussed surrogacy with them.