Early ballot results in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District show Democrat Hiral Tipirneni put up more of a fight against Republican Debbie Lesko than expected in a district that has been reliably conservative for years.
Lesko lead Tipirneni by 6 percentage points after a count of early ballots Tuesday evening.
Although the lead may be insurmountable, the race is closer than expected when contrasted against President Trump’s 21 percentage points victory in the 2016 presidential election. The Associated Press declared Lesko the winner immediately after the initial returns.
Pollster George Khalaf said the special election is “over” with Lesko’s lead.
Lesko accepted the AP’s call soon after, thanking her family and supporters.
“Wow,” she said repeatedly. “I’m going to be a congresswoman.”
She said it was surreal to think she left an abusive husband 25 years ago, and now, she’s won a seat in Congress.
“Life takes us on journeys, and this is an incredible journey,” she said.
Tipirneni said in a written statement the race is too close to call.
Republicans cast about 48 percent of early ballots, but Tipirneni claimed about 47 percent of the total early vote, indicating some in the GOP party may have swung in the Democrat’s favor.
The results in Legislative District 20 were telling. Tipirneni led Lesko by 6 percentage points in the early ballot results from that district, which has not elected a Democrat in the three elections since districts were redrawn.
While Lesko focused largely on her hardline stance on immigration and history in the district, Tipirneni emphasized her history as an emergency room doctor and stance on programs like Medicare and social security. Health care was a major focus of her campaign, frequently referring back to her time working with patients, and releasing campaign ads showing her in a hospital setting though she no longer practices; she is now a cancer research advocate.
Tipirneni also billed herself as a political outsiders and more of a moderate Democrat, a strategy that paid off in other districts across the country where Republicans were defeated despite running in traditionally GOP strongholds.
National Republicans appeared nervous heading into the special general election.
Groups like the National Republican Congressional Committee pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race, spending on ads and the campaign’s ground game.
The support came after Republicans elsewhere in the country suffered losses in Pennsylvania and Alabama, and Democrats saw the spending in CD8 as a sign the GOP was concerned the party may lose yet again in Arizona.
Tipirneni also raised more money than Lesko. Reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show she received about $670,000 and gave herself $70,000 compared to Lesko’s contributions of about $539,000 and loans from herself totaling $25,000.
But Democratic groups withheld the level of financial support Lesko enjoyed from her national backers.
As Democratic consultants suggested their right-wing opponents were anxious, Republican consultants said the Democrats simply thought the race was not one worth investing in when other districts across the country may be more at play in 2018.
Lesko will still have to defend her seat in the regularly scheduled elections this August and November where some of her dozen challengers could reemerge – and so will Tipirneni.
“Regardless of the outcome, we’re taking this to November,” she tweeted Tuesday night while only early ballots were accounted for.
The seat became open when Franks stepped down after acknowledging that he had discussed surrogacy with two female staffers. A former aide told The Associated Press that he pressed her to carry his child as a surrogate and offered her $5 million.
Tipirneni remained confident she could pull off a win, tweeting that there were thousands of votes yet to be counted.
Several Republican voters who spoke with AP said they backed Lesko primarily because she supported President Donald Trump’s border security plans.
David Hunt, a 64-year-old retired construction and warehouse worker from Glendale, said he cast his vote Tuesday for Lesko because he believed that immigrants in the country illegally are creating unfair competition for jobs for recent high school students in Arizona.
“She’s the best candidate to deal with the porous border,” Hunt said.
Democrats said they wanted to send a message to Trump and supported Democratic health care plans.
“I don’t like the president and felt it was time to take a stand,” said Nikole Allen, a 45-year-old medical assistant from New York now living in Glendale. “It’s time for us to vote the Republicans out.”
Lance Ostrander, a registered Democrat who works for Maricopa County and lives in Peoria, said he’d be happy if Tipirneni wins.
“We’d really like a change,” he said. “Trump had a lot of good ideas at first but a lot of people feel like they were hoodwinked.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.