Republican Debbie Lesko wins special general election to replace Franks
PHOENIX — Voters elected Republican Debbie Lesko to Arizona’s Congressional District 8 seat on Tuesday, filling a U.S. House of Representatives seat that had been left vacant since former Rep. Trent Franks resigned in December.
“I’m going next week to find a place to live (in the Washington, D.C. area),” Lesko told KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Arizona’s Morning News on Wednesday.
The reliably conservative district was expected to go to Lesko, who was declared the winner with 53 percent of the vote, but 47 percent of residents voted for Democrat Dr. Hiral Tipirneni.
In comparison, President Donald Trump carried the district by 21 points in 2016.
Trump also tweeted in support of Lesko on Tuesday, saying she was “strong on border, immigration and crime” and “great on the military.
“Time is ticking down – get out and VOTE today. We need Debbie in Congress!”
The polls were open in the district until 7 p.m. Arizona time. Results started to trickle in by 8 p.m.
Tipirneni conceded in the morning, in a media release.
“Now that nearly all of the votes have been counted, we know that the special election goes to our opponent,” Tipirneni said in the statement.
“I congratulate Debbie Lesko on a hard-fought campaign, and wish her good luck in Congress.”
On election night, Tipirneni told supporters and tweeted that there was a “single-digit race” with “tens of thousands of ballots left to count” and that she wasn’t giving up yet.
The final results were not expected until sometime Wednesday or Thursday, Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes said.
More than 180,000 of the district’s 456,000 registered voters were expected to participate in the election.
Fontes said about 19,000 voters had turned out to the 55 voting locations on Tuesday and more than 155,000 people participated in early voting.
“The turnout looks pretty good,” Fontes told KTAR News 92.3 FM, adding that officials had a rough time with estimates because special elections usually draw fewer voters compared to normal elections.
But voting started off with a hiccup on Tuesday: A printing delay prevented about 8,000 residents in the district from receiving their voter registration IDs on time. Voters could still turn up to the polls without them, but the IDs would have made it easier to tell whether they were eligible to vote and where they could vote.
Fontes told KTAR News 92.3 FM that there were only minor technical difficulties and no reports of long lines or rough spots on the day of the election.
Alex Castellanos, a political analyst with ABC News, told KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Arizona’s Morning News that the race “was tighter than it ought to be,” emphasizing that the Republican Party had a 22-point point edge on registered voters in the district.
“So far, all the signs are good for Republicans,” he said. “The median voter age for early voters was 68 years old.
“Republicans should be able to hold on, but in a low turnout election, anything could happen,” he added. “If the Democrats are even close on this one, it does not [bode] well for the Republicans.”
Castellanos was not the only one to think that a narrow vote margin could mean good news for Democrats in Arizona: FiveThirtyEight, a statistical analysis website, said an overperformance by Tipirneni of eight-plus points would “bode well for Democrats’ chances to flip Sen. Jeff Flake’s open seat” in November.
But former Gov. Jan Brewer, who supported Lesko, told reporters that she was not worried about Lesko’s narrow win on Tuesday.
“A win is a win!” she said.
Gov. Doug Ducey, who is up for re-election in November, was spotted at Lesko’s election night party and tweeted in support of her once she was declared the winner.
Several U.S. House of Representatives members from Arizona also tweeted their congratulations to the newly-elected representative.
Despite Tuesday’s loss, Tipirneni has not given up just yet: Her campaign was already collecting signatures during her election night party for the August general election.
Lesko spent nine years in the Arizona Legislature and was the Senate president pro tempore before resigning in January to pursue the Franks seat.
Special general election has been months in the making
Tuesday’s election marked the end of a monthslong process, which kicked off in December once Franks resigned after allegedly discussing surrogacy with at least two staffers. A former aide told The Associated Press that he pressed her to carry his child as a surrogate and offered her $5 million.
The Democratic Party hoped to continue a streak of surprising special election wins, which had been present in places like Alabama, Pennsylvania and other Republican strongholds, but were not able to do so in Arizona.
The numbers strongly favored Lesko: In the Feb. 27 primary, two out of three ballots were cast for a Republican.
The district sprawling across western Phoenix suburbs included some of the most conservative areas of the red state, including the retirement communities of Sun City and the Glendale home of former GOP Gov. Jan Brewer, who never lost an election and campaigned for Lesko.
National Republican groups spent big to back Lesko, pouring in more than $500,000 for television and mail ads and phone calls to voters to ensure her victory.
While national Democratic groups did not commit money to ads in the race, in recent weeks, some progressive groups were spending to back Tipirneni, who had been running non-stop TV ads.
Several voters said they voted for Lesko because her conservative political views — including supporting a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and opposing new restrictions to gun purchases — mirror that of the district.
Larry Bettis, a retiree who consistently votes Republican and wants Trump to build a border wall, told The Associated Press that he “voted for Lesko, and I don’t know why. I guess it’s better the enemy you know than the one you don’t know.”
Larry Baird, a retired elementary school teacher from Sun City, told The Associated Press that he voted for Lesko by mail because of her work as a state lawmaker on behalf of his community’s retirees.
Baird said Lesko had successfully fought to make golf carts street legal in Sun City, a move that has made life easier for older people who have health limitations that make driving larger vehicles impossible.
“I like that she’s not flashy,” the 72-year-old said. “She’s more like the nice lady next door.”
But Dennis Allen, an 84-year-old who worked in the natural gas industry in Chicago before retiring in Sun City, told the AP he voted for Lesko, but that the “only politician who has been worth anything for me, really, in 60 years of voting is Donald Trump.”
However, Lesko had not escaped controversy: She has brushed off complaints made to the Federal Election Commission that she broke campaign finance laws during the primary by transferring $50,000 from her state campaign to an independent group that spent nearly all the cash backing her congressional run.
The FEC had not acted and can’t discuss any action until it is finalized.
KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Griselda Zetino and The Associated Press contributed to this report.