Democrats don’t think they are going to win next week’s special election in the reliably Republican suburbs west of Phoenix.
But in a year where Arizona is slated to have multiple high profile general election races in November – including a closely watched contest for the state’s open Senate seat, a chance to challenge Arizona’s Republican governor and a winnable open House seat – a dozen Democrats in the state and around the country told CNN that they see their efforts to back a longshot congressional candidate as a test run for November.
Republicans aren’t taking any chances either, spending over $1 million in the race and getting President Donald Trump to record a robocall earlier this month to boost early voting.
“Nancy Pelosi wants to send a liberal Democrat to Congress to represent you. We can’t have that,” Trump says in the call, a recording of which was obtained by CNN, that went out to voters on April 6. “If that happens, illegal immigrants will pour right over your border, bringing their drugs and their crime with them, right into your neighborhood, right into your back yard.”
Democratic leaders would certainly like to win the special election that pits Republican Debbie Lesko, a former state senator, against Democrat Hiral Tipirneni, a physician, in Arizona’s 8th district. And a win for the Democrat would be an arguably bigger sign of a looming blue wave than even Democrat Conor Lamb’s unlikely win in suburban Pittsburgh earlier this year.
But Democrats realize that the odds of a victory are long. The district backed Trump by 21 percentage points in 2016, there are around 78,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in the district and the party didn’t even put up candidates in 2014 and 2016 against now-former Rep. Trent Franks, who resigned in December amid sexual harassment allegations.
A number of national and state Democrats working in the special election have begun to acknowledge that they now hope the race can be used as an indicator of what to expect in Rep. Kyrsten Sinema’s key Senate race later this year.
Their thinking goes like this: If Tipirneni can keep it close with Lesko in a district that Trump won by more than 20 points, Democrats stand to make significant gains in the state later this year given Trump only won Arizona overall by roughly 3 points in 2016.
“We are seeing the special as a test run of how we are going to gear up for 2018,” said a senior Arizona Democratic Party official, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly. “We firmly believe in Hiral or else we wouldn’t be supporting her, but at the end of the day, we are seeing this a good exercise for what we need to do in 2018.”
Another top operative in the state said, “There are clearly lessons to be learned from this race and it is just another proof point. Of course it will be relevant to the story of how the general election will play out seven months later.”
Democrats have long viewed Arizona as a place where the party could make gains. Hillary Clinton’s campaign, in the waning days of what they thought was a winning effort, announced that she would make a last-minute trip to Arizona to, in their minds, turn the state blue in November. That didn’t come to fruition, though, and Trump carried the state and the election.
Bullish on 2018
Since the loss, Democrats have grown more confident about the prospect of picking up the House in November. Emboldened by their win in Pennsylvania and a field of new candidates in races once considered off-the-map for most Democrats, the feeling inside the party is that anti-Trump fervor will turn at least one half of Capitol Hill blue in November.
But the Senate is another story.
Democrats face a tough map in the upper chamber, where they are forced to defend 26 seats this year, including several in states Trump overwhelmingly won in 2016 – namely Sen. Jon Tester in Montana, Sen. Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Sen. Joe Donnelly in Indiana. That makes a state like Arizona key, where the retirement of Republican Sen. Jeff Flake gives Democrats a chance to go on offense and pick up a much-needed seat.
Which is the main reason why Sinema’s Senate campaign, according to a Democratic operative with knowledge of the race, is closely watching the outcome in Tuesday’s special election, viewing the contest as an indicator of how they need to run later this year.
If Tipirneni keeps it close, the operative said, expect to see Sinema and other Arizona Democrats look to make healthcare a center point in their campaigns, much like Tipirneni has done.
Another operative noted that the organizing in the reliably Republican district has allowed Democrats to reach out to voters that they had left untouched in 2016 and make inroads with voters who backed Trump. The key to those efforts may be seniors, the operative said, noting that they appear to be animated by health care messaging and are open to leaving Trump in the midterms.
That matters broadly in Arizona, but particularly in the special election, where senior voters will make up the bulk of those who cast ballots.
Over 134,420 ballots have already been cast through early voting as of Monday, according to data from the Arizona Secretary of State provided by a source familiar with the race. Of those ballots, 48% have been by registered Republicans and 27.5% by self-identified Democrats. Seniors, as expected, make up the bulk of the ballots, with 54% of all votes cast coming from voters 65 and older.
In 2012, the last time Democrats ran a candidate in the district, the total number of ballots cast was 272,791.
Despite almost all special elections having national implication over the last year, this race has largely flown under the national radar.
Lesko outlasted state Sen. Steve Montenegro, who found himself in the midst of a sexting scandal, to win the primary earlier this year, and Tipirneni beat progressive activist Brianna Westbrook.
Lesko has tried to cast Tipirneni as too liberal for the district and has backed Trump’s plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and celebrated the Republican-backed tax reform. Tipirneni, on the other hand, has positioned herself as a non-traditional politician, released a detailed health care plan and attacked Lesko as “everything you hate about politics.”
Trump’s robocall touts Lesko as a “conservative Republican” and says the former state senator stands with him.
“Like me, Debbie Lesko is strong on the wall, strong on immigration and will cut your taxes. I need you to vote for Debbie Lesko be returning your early voting ballot today,” he said. “With your help, we will help, and we will definitely make America great again. A very wonderful phrase.”
Tipirneni has raised $664,920 during the race, over $100,000 more than Lesko’s $539,403. But much of the spending has come from outside the respective campaigns, with Republican organizations spending over $1 million a race that has been reliably Republican for years.
The Democratic National Committee, according to a party official, has not directly spent on the race, but did provide the Arizona Democratic Party with a “five-figure” grant to upgrade their voter outreach and registration efforts. The DNC, the official said, has backed a digital ad campaign for Tipirneni and used its organization to spur voter turnout in the district.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been even less involved, spending no money on television in the contest, but the group Tax March – a nonprofit that is part of the “Not One Penny” progressive coalition – announced earlier this month that they were spending $500,000 on ads criticizing the new Republican tax law in the Phoenix media market. And the Progressive Turnout Project spent $30,000 for field work earlier this month.
That nominal action has spurred Republicans to spend over $1 million to back Lesko, a welcome sign for Democrats who want Republicans to spend money in reliably red districts.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has spent over $500,000, according to Federal Election Commission filings, including a recent $250,000 ad buy to close out the race.
The Republican National Committee has also spent close to $500,000, according to filings, with much of that going towards mail and turnout operations.
And the Congressional Leadership Fund committed earlier this year to spend $100,000 on phone and digital operations aimed at spurring conservative voters to support Lesko.
Democrats have relished the Republican spending in the race ever since it began to intensify in March.
“It’s panic money,” said one Democrat.
CNN’s Adam Levy and Eric Bradner contributed to this report.