Washington (AFP) – Donald Trump’s Republicans won a closely watched congressional election Tuesday in Arizona, but by a single-digit margin in a district the president won easily in 2016, as Democrats made a strong showing ahead of mid-term elections.
Former state lawmaker Debbie Lesko, a Trump supporter, kept the House seat safely in Republican hands in a conservative leaning district that saw a spirited challenge from Democratic political novice Hiral Tipirneni, a cancer researcher and former emergency room physician.
US media called the race based on the Republican’s lead in early voting, with Lesko ahead by a margin of 52.9 percent to 47.1 percent.
That margin was far leaner than the party breakdown of early voters, which was put at 48.3 percent Republican and 27.9 percent Democrat, suggesting Tipirneni overwhelmingly won independent or crossover voters.
Trump won the district by 21 points 18 months ago. But an energized Democratic grassroots movement — fueled by the president’s relatively poor approval rating and the general sense of chaos in the Trump administration — has been able to make even the reddest regions of the country competitive.
The race is being seen as another national litmus test of Trump’s popularity — and Democratic strength — ahead of November’s mid-term elections when Democrats will seek to regain control of the House and Senate.
It follows a series of Democratic victories including a Senate contest in Alabama, various local and statewide races in Virginia and most recently a hotly contested House seat in southwestern Pennsylvania Trump country that have rattled Republicans and emboldened Democrats.
Lesko acknowledged on the day of the vote that her race was “a bellwether” for the midterm elections.
GOP groups reportedly poured about $1 million into the race to replace conservative congressman Trent Franks, who quit in December over a sex scandal.
The effort was aimed at putting the party back on an even keel after recent shock election losses, as well as the sudden announcement by US House Speaker Paul Ryan this month that he will not seek re-election.
Ryan insisted that Tuesday’s Arizona victory “proves that Republicans have a positive record to run on this fall, and we need to spend the next seven months aggressively selling our message to the American people.”