Washington (AFP) – Americans in a conservative pocket of Arizona cast ballots Tuesday in a special congressional election seen as another national litmus test of President Donald Trump’s popularity — and Democratic strength — ahead of November’s mid-term elections.
The southwestern state’s 8th congressional district has been so reliably Republican — Trump won it by 21 points in 2016 — that Democrats have barely focused on it since 2012.
Now they are all in, seeking a dramatic upset in Trump country, or at least a close loss, that would push Republicans onto their heels and signal the opposition party could be on its way to ending Trump’s control of Congress.
Two women, Republican state senator Debbie Lesko and Democrat cancer researcher Hiral Tipirneni, are vying for the seat vacated in December by conservative congressman Trent Franks, who quit amid reports he offered a staffer $5 million to be his baby surrogate.
“Arizona, please get out today and vote @DebbieLesko for Congress in #AZ08. Strong on Border, Immigration and Crime,” Trump tweeted Tuesday.
“We need Debbie in Congress!”
Lesko, a passionate advocate of the border wall proposed by Trump, is slightly favored in the district northwest of Phoenix — although a recent outlier polls put her in a dead heat against Tipirneni, a former emergency room physician.
Lesko knows the race is being closely watched for its broader political significance — and the margin of victory might be just as important as who wins.
“I think the whole nation is looking at this election as a bellwether for the midterm elections,” Lesko told Fox News on election morning.
“But this is a conservative district, so I expect to win and I hope I win big.”
GOP groups reportedly have poured about $1 million into the race, seeking to put the party back on an even keel after shock election losses in recent months in Alabama, Virginia and most recently Pennsylvania, as well as the sudden announcement by US House Speaker Paul Ryan this month that he will not seek re-election.
– Avoiding ‘panic’ –
“These elections are all about national trends, motivated voters and donors, and omens for November,” government professor John McGlennon of the College of William & Mary told AFP.
“The race has already thrown the Republicans into a panic.”
Their goal is to score a stronger-than-expected Lesko victory to reassure skittish Republican donors and leaders, and overcome the narrative that Trump’s low approval ratings and turmoil within the administration are turning off undecided and independent voters.
Winning high-profile elections in Trump country was almost unthinkable for Democrats one year ago.
But after several months of political turmoil in Washington — including sacked or resigning cabinet officials and a swirling investigation over Russia’s election meddling that creeps ever closer to the White House — Democrats are eyeing major gains in November.
Last month Democrat Conor Lamb won a stunning upset in southwestern Pennsylvania, where Trump campaigned twice in a failed effort to keep the congressional seat in Republican hands.
Democrats need to gain 23 seats in the 435-member House of Representatives to retake control of the chamber.
Republicans are meanwhile focused on Arizona’s eighth district as a bulwark that they hope will halt a broader slide.
“If they can hold off the Democrat here by a margin in the high single digits, they may be able to calm the sense of impending doom,” McGlennon said.
Polling places are open until 7:00 pm (0200 GMT Wednesday).