SUN CITY, Ariz. (AP) — The sprawling suburbs west of Phoenix may put a brake on Democratic optimism following surprising special election wins in places like Alabama, Pennsylvania and other GOP strongholds.
Voters in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District, characterized by single-family tract homes, auto dealerships and big chain stores amid mesquite trees and scrub brush, will choose a new U.S. House representative April 24. The reliably conservative region includes several retirement communities and most observers expect it to remain in GOP control.
“The only politician who has been worth anything for me, really, in 60 years of voting is Donald Trump,” said Dennis Allen, an 84-year-old who worked in the natural gas industry in Chicago before retiring in Sun City, Arizona. There are plenty of voters like Allen in the 8th, which the president carried by 21 points in 2016.
Allen said he has already voted for Republican state Sen. Debbie Lesko, who is running against Democrat Hiral Tipirneni, a former emergency room physician who now works as a cancer research advocate. Early voting started March 28 and nearly half of the expected 280,000 votes have already been cast.
Lesko says her conservative political views mirror the district. Tipirneni is seen as a fresh Democratic face with relatively moderate views who could get support during what appears to be developing as a wave year for her party.
Both women are vying to replace Republican Trent Franks, who resigned last year after acknowledging 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.
Retired elementary school teacher Larry Baird, of Sun City, described himself as a very conservative anti-abortion Christian who has already cast his vote 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.”
Tipirneni, making a push for older voters, said Lesko will vote to go after entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicaid to pay for tax cuts that mainly benefit the wealthy. She’s pushing a plan to allow some people to buy into Medicare.
“We have a large proportion of retirees, who are concerned about their Medicare and Social Security, which has been clearly identified as something the GOP intends to slash now after the tax bill that they passed,” Tipirneni said.
Lesko slammed Tipirneni as being out of touch with voters who oppose government-run health care and ignores extra cash people are seeking from the Trump tax cuts. She called the Democrat too liberal for the area, and pointed to Tipirneni’s opposition to a wall on the Mexican border.
“I support securing the border, and part of that is paying for and putting up a border wall where it makes sense,” Lesko said. “She is totally opposed and is on record of opposing any money going toward the border wall. This is not what our constituents want.”
Tipirneni says the wall would be a waste of money that could be better used for other security measures.
“To me a wall is not an answer, and quite frankly a lot of people have chimed in on a bipartisan basis that a wall is not the answer,” Tipirneni said of Trump’s wished-for barrier.
The president recently called for troops to be sent to the southern border because he said illegal immigration had become a crisis. Arizona is among the states deploying National Guard members.
National Republican groups are spending big to back Lesko, pouring in more than $500,000 for television and mail ads and phone calls to voters to ensure her victory. National Democratic groups haven’t put significant resources into the race.
“If it was a real race the Dems would be spending, and they’re not spending anything,” Republican political consultant Constantin Querard said. “My hunch is that outside groups will spend some money so they can take credit for the win.”
The numbers are strongly in Lesko’s favor. In the Feb. 27 primary, 2 out of every 3 ballots was cast for a Republican.
Early ballot returns in the upcoming special election also strongly favor Republicans, who enjoy a 41 percent to 24 percent voter registration advantage in the district, with another 34 percent not choosing a party affiliation.
What may make Lesko vulnerable is her support for school choice as the architect of a universal voucher bill passed last year. Education advocates incensed by what they see as a siphoning of public school cash for private and religious schools collected enough signatures to block it until the upcoming November election.
“Families are talking about their kids’ education,” Tipirneni said. “And as you know public education is where Arizona struggles, and my opponent has taken a very clear stance on where she stands on that. She has tried to erode public education.”
Lesko defends her school choice initiatives, and says she strongly backs public schools. She slammed Tipirneni for running an ad attacking her for a temporary school funding sales tax she backed after the Great Recession.
Lesko 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 has not acted and can’t discuss any action until it is finalized.
Ginny-Lee Richardson, a 71-year-old retired high school teacher who lives in Sun City, said she would vote for Tipirneni.
“I’m sure that Debbie Lesko is a good person, but her policies don’t reflect my values,” Richardson said outside City Hall in Surprise.