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Democrat concedes Arizona special election to Republican Debbie Lesko

Lesko's lead might have kept a conservative congressional district in Republican hands — but the margin might be too close for comfort.
by Alex Seitz-Wald /  / Updated 

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WASHINGTON — Republican Debbie Lesko won an Arizona congressional special election Tuesday over her Democratic rival, Hiral Tipirneni.

Tipirneni conceded the race Wednesday after initially saying the outstanding votes made it too close to call.

Lesko has a 52.6 percent to 47.4 percent lead over Tiperneni, or 91,390 votes to 82,316 — an Republican advantage of 9,072 votes, with 100 percent of precincts reporting, according to the Arizona secretary of state's office.

That margin may concern Republicans. President Donald Trump carried the district in the conservative Western Phoenix suburbs by 21 percentage points, and its previous occupant, Trent Franks, a Republican, ran unopposed.

Franks resigned the seat last year in a sexual harassment scandal.

But Tipirneni, a former emergency room physician, did better than many had expected against Lesko, a former state senator who is on the board of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.

"I congratulate Debbie Lesko on a hard-fought campaign," Tipirneni said in a statement Wednesday. "Now, on to November!"

Republicans had pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race to avoid another embarrassing defeat after losses in Pennsylvania, Alabama and Virginia.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., congratulated Lesko on the victory, saying she ran a smart campaign "and focused in on the issues that voters cared about, like having more take-home pay, fewer regulations, and a secure border."

"Her 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," Ryan added.

But some Democratic activists saw the results quite differently.

"This is a race that was never supposed to be competitive," Maria Urbina, national political director for the Indivisible Project, said in a statement.

National Democrats largely stayed away from the race, with strategists downplaying expectations in a district made up largely of older, white voters. It includes in the large Sun City retirement community.

Image: Debbie Lesko wins in Arizona
Debbie Lesko, right, claims victory in the special election in Arizona with former Gov. Jan Brewer at her home Tuesday night in Peoria.Matt York / AP

Most voters were able to submit their ballots by mail, which was thought to favor Republicans by limiting the effect Democrats' enthusiasm advantage would have on turnout.

Democrats have consistently improved on their past performances in special elections across the country since Trump's election, even when they lost, and Tuesday's race continued that trend.

Results like Tuesday's have Democrats hoping they're on track for big victories in November's midterms.

"It should terrify vulnerable Republicans that their party had to run a desperate rescue mission to hold on to this deep red seat in Arizona," said Jacob Peters, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign committee. "Republicans shouldn’t have had to spend a dime to hold this district."

Lesko and Tipirneni are poised for an almost immediate rematch in November, because the special election was called only to fill the rest of Frank's term.

Tipirneni has already said she will run, and Democrats think she has a better chance then.

Meanwhile, in a New York special election Tuesday, Democrats flipped their 40th state legislative seat from red to blue so far this election cycle.

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