National Republicans are moving to head off another special election fiasco — this time in a deep-red Arizona congressional district teeming with retirees that would never register as even remotely competitive in a normal election year.
Two weeks after the party’s stunning defeat in a conservative district in southwestern Pennsylvania, Republicans are funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars into Arizona’s 8th District, which President Donald Trump won by more than 20 percentage points in 2016.
The National Republican Congressional Committee on Monday launched a coordinated, $170,000 TV buy with the campaign of candidate Debbie Lesko, according to a source familiar with the purchase. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a deep-pocketed GOP super PAC, is planning to spend about $100,000 on a phone and digital effort aimed at turning out conservative voters. Early voting starts on Wednesday.
The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, is spending about $280,000 on a field operation to bolster Lesko. She’s running to replace GOP Rep. Trent Franks, an eight-term congressman who resigned from his seat last year after reports that he pressed female aides to serve as a surrogate mother. Trump’s political team is also considering a range of options for getting involved in the race.
Republicans insist the efforts are precautionary and that they fully expect to prevail in an April 24 special election. Two senior party officials who’ve reviewed polling in recent days said Lesko held a double-digit lead.
But the fact they feel compelled to spend at all shows yet again the fierce headwinds Republicans are facing in a midterm cycle dominated by Democratic enthusiasm, a scandal-plagued White House and poor presidential approval ratings.
“This is a red seat, so they shouldn’t normally have to spend anything on this race, but Republicans are on defense,” said Mike Noble, a Republican pollster based in Arizona, adding that there has been a “heightened awareness and sense of urgency” after Conor Lamb’s victory in Pennsylvania “because you get in trouble when you’re asleep at the wheel.”
Noble said he expects the seat to “stay Republican,” but “the margin will be closer than it would be normally.”
Lesko, a former state senator, is running against Hiral Tipirneni, a physician who’s raised about $300,000 for her bid. Tipirneni has picked up some national support, including endorsements from former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords and End Citizens United.
The influx of national GOP help for Lesko shows that Republicans are “obviously very concerned about losing this special election,” said Jason Kimbrough, spokesman for Tipirneni’s campaign.
But Democrats acknowledge that Tipirneni has a steep climb in the central Arizona district, which encompasses a mix of small towns and the western Phoenix suburbs, including Sun City, a large retirement community that served as former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s base of support.
A poll conducted by the Democratic firm Lake Research for the Tiperneni campaign found that Lesko leads by 14 points, and that 59 percent of surveyed voters view Trump favorably. A memo accompanying the poll noted that Tipirneni must win over Republican voters by double digits.
During a debate that aired Friday, Tipirneni, a self-described “moderate,” said it will be “tough, but … doable” to win crossover support from Republican voters.
“Trent Franks did not have a strong Democratic opponent in multiple cycles, and we don’t really know how a strong Democrat can fare,” said Tipirneni, who cited her support for “strong and secure borders” as one of her moderate policy positions.
But local Republican operatives predicted that she would struggle in such a conservative district, which favors hard-line positions on immigration and other issues.
"The way that she has articulated her immigration policies hasn’t been moderate because she’s strongly against the border wall and that’s what people want here," said Brian Anderson, a Republican consultant in Arizona. "As much as she says she’s a moderate, it’s not the way that she has come across, and that’s the difficulty for a Democrat running in a red district."
Lesko, meanwhile, made building a border wall the centerpiece of her campaign messaging, airing a TV ad during the GOP primary that called the southern border a “war zone.”
In the first TV ad of the general special election, Tipirneni, a first-time candidate, casts Lesko as “everything you hate about politics.”
The ad attacks Lesko for being "under federal investigation for illegal money laundering to her campaign," a reference to complaints filed by one of Lesko’s opponents in last month’s primary that she improperly transferred campaign funds from a state committee to her federal account.
But in a recent debate, Lesko called the complaint "totally frivolous," and the work of her political opponents.
Lesko faced similar attacks during the Republican primary. But the campaign finance complaints against her were overshadowed by a sexual misconduct scandal involving Steve Montenegro, her Republican opponent who was backed by Franks.
A week before the February primary, Montenegro, a former state senator, acknowledged that he exchanged lewd text messages with a legislative staffer, including a topless photo from the woman.