On the surface, Republicans got some good news out of Arizona last night. Debbie Lesko (R) won the special election to succeed former Rep. Trent Franks (R) in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District (AZ-08), soaring the GOP an embarrassing defeat akin to last month’s Pennsylvania surprise. But scratch beneath the surface, and we can see how that “Blue Wave” continues to strengthen. Might this Arizona near-miss be hitting too close to home for Nevada Republicans?
AZ-08: The swing district that normally isn’t
For many voters outside the western Phoenix suburbs that comprise AZ-08, Rep. Trent Franks said and did a number of head-scratching things, from comparing abortion to slavery to proposing legislation to “survey” Islamic thought. But in his district, a district that’s older and whiter than the rest of the Phoenix region, Franks had never faced any kind of political jeopardy. He regularly won reelection with over 60% of the vote, and he didn’t even have a Democratic opponent in 2014 or 2016.
That all changed last December, when the House Ethics Committee opened an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment. Franks then acknowledged that he asked female staffers to serve as pregnancy surrogates, and hours later AP broke the news that Franks offered a staffer $5 million to carry his child. As Franks quickly became another Capitol Hill #MeToo scandal, he eventually offered his immediate resignation.
Yet even then, Arizona Republicans weren’t sensing any real danger. After all, President Donald Trump carried AZ-08 by 21% in 2016, and Mitt Romney carried this district by 25% in 2012. Even as voting began in this special election, Republicans liked what they saw in the vote-by-mail ballot returns and voiced confidence that AZ-08 would be an easy hold for them.
And yet, the shoo-in became a real struggle
Against this backdrop, even with the Franks #MeToo scandal factored in, pundits and political insiders generally thought former State Senator Debbie Lesko had the inside track. She was raising a decent amount of money, appeared to be scandal-free, and more or less campaigned as a “generic Republican” in the kind of place where voters generically favor Republicans.
And yet, Lesko only mustered a roughly 5.2% victory over political newcomer Dr. Hiral Tipirneni (D) last night. Though Tipirneni raised more money than Lesko, national Republican groups parachuted into Arizona and early this year and spent heavily to promote Lesko while their Democratic counterparts stayed more at arm’s length. Despite Republicans’ institutional and demographic advantages, Tipirneni dramatically improved upon Hillary Clinton’s 2016 performance in the district, even in the Sun City retirement community that’s normally a Republican stronghold.
Already, some Republicans are interpreting this as another warning sign. After Rep. Conor Lamb (D) pulled off a victory in a Pennsylvania district that had been trending against Democrats for the past decade, after Senator Doug Jones (D-Alabama) managed to win a state that Democrats had languished in for the past two decades, and after Republicans have been consistently underperforming in elections across the nation, that “Blue Wave” that Democrats love to talk about is looking less theoretical and more real.
So what do these Arizona results mean for Nevada?
For one, this is the first hotly contested special election that’s occurred at our doorstep, in the type of suburban territory that’s not too different from the Las Vegas suburbs, and on turf that’s significantly redder than Nevada’s reddest Congressional District (NV-02, home to Rep. Mark Amodei [R-Carson City]). It also attracted the kind of voter turnout that didn’t depart dramatically from the historic norm, and it featured nominees who didn’t veer too far from their respective parties’ platforms. Republicans truly had no excuses here, yet they still managed to whimper where they should have been roaring.
Just before the Arizona results began to come in, The Nevada Independent released its new poll conducted by the famed Mellman Group. With a demographic sample that wasn’t particularly rough for Republicans, U.S. Senator Dean Heller (R) was locked in a near-tie with Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-Henderson) while Steve Sisolak (D) jumped to a 6% lead over Adam Laxalt (R) in the gubernatorial contest and Democrats posted leads in the other statewide contests. This poll isn’t that far off from the last poll that was released to the public, a Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey conducted last month that found Rosen with a 5% lead over Heller.
All in all, if I were working on Heller’s or Laxalt’s campaigns (or for that matter, a Republican running down-ballot), I’d be worried today. Not only is that new poll not looking too pretty for Team Red, but the actual election results from the other end of US-95 suggest that even in races that lack controversial nominees or other outstanding mitigating factors, Republicans are still struggling. Maybe this isn’t a tsunami warning just yet, but it might be time for Republicans to start seeking higher ground.