Democrat vying for House upset in Arizona GOP stronghold

Debbie Lesko
The Associated Press

PHOENIX (AP) — Voters in a Republican-heavy Arizona congressional district headed to the polls Tuesday as a Democratic newcomer looked to pull off an upset victory for an open U.S. House seat held by Republicans since the early 1980s.

Hiral Tipirneni, an emergency room physician and a cancer research advocate, is hoping to replicate Democratic wins in Pennsylvania, Alabama and other states in a year where opposition to President Donald Trump’s policies have boosted the party’s chances in Republican strongholds.

Still, many observers in Arizona see Tipirneni’s odds as slim against the Republican, former state Sen. Debbie Lesko. Trump won the district by 21 points in 2016.

At a polling place in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale, a stream of voters made their way into a church meeting room converted into a polling place, including Larry Bettis, a retiree who consistently votes Republican and wants Trump to build the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border

“I voted for Lesko, and I don’t know why,” Bettis said. “I guess it’s better the enemy you know than the one you don’t know.”

Ken Buedel, an active Democratic Party volunteer, said he was optimistic about the possibility that Tipirneni could win, or at least get a larger percentage of votes than Democrats in the past. He drove Democratic canvassers around the suburbs northwest of Phoenix as the election approached.

“I think Dr. Tipirneni is a terrific candidate and if she gets elected, I think she’ll do real well,” said Buedel, who is originally from Chicago. “She’s the best candidate I can imagine to help turn this red district more blue.”

Lesko and Tipirneni are competing in a special election to replace former Rep. Trent Franks in Arizona’s 8th District, who resigned in December amid sexual misconduct allegations.

Lesko represented parts of the district in the state Legislature since 2009 and has an extremely strong base of support in a district Franks had locked up since 2003.

She’s opposed to Tipirneni’s push to expand government-run health care, backs the president’s tax cuts and is pushing his border wall proposal.

“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 said her opponent “is on record of opposing any money going toward the border wall. This is not what our constituents want.”

Tipirneni is pushing a plan that would allow people under retirement age to opt-in to Medicare coverage to provide new competition in health care markets, and opposes a wall while boosting enforcement through technology and drones and adding Border Patrol agents. She also said the fastest growing segment of immigrants in the U.S. illegally overstayed visas.

“To me a wall is not an answer, and quite frankly a lot of people have chimed in on a bi-partisan basis that a wall is not the answer,” she said.

Tipirneni is seen as a fresh Democratic face with relatively moderate views that could get support during an optimistic year for her party. “I think there are a lot of recent elections to suggest that conventional wisdom doesn’t necessarily apply,” she said. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm in our base.”

The numbers strongly favor Lesko — in the Feb. 27 primary, 2 out of 3 ballots were cast for a Republican. The district sprawling across western Phoenix suburbs includes 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 in a 12-way GOP primary.

National Republican groups are spending big to back Lesko. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy flew in for a fundraiser last week. Lesko welcomes the spending from national GOP organizations.

“Not only do I want to win, but I want to win by a lot so the Democrats can see that they don’t have a chance in a red district,” she said in a recent interview.

National Democratic groups haven’t committed money to ads in the race, but in recent weeks, some progressive groups have been spending to back Tipirneni, and she has been running non-stop TV ads in recent days.

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