A few months ago, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) was forced to resign when he was accused of offering female staffers money in exchange for surrogacy and possibly sex. Apart from the revelation that yet another smarmy, "family values" conservative is apparently actually a drooling creepster, the resignation led to the latest in a long series of special elections, many of which have served as previews of the 2018 midterms.
In last night's race to finish Franks' term, Republican Debbie Lesko edged out Democrat Hiral Tipirneni by about 5 percentage points. In some sense, this is a good outcome for the GOP. At least they won! But any Republicans breathing a sigh of relief about avoiding another Alabama-style embarrassment should instead be feeling a fresh bout of panic about their November prospects.
The race was a fairly straightforward affair that received comparatively moderate press attention. Both parties put forward strong candidates. For the GOP, Debbie Lesko is a veteran state legislator with what are now depressingly standard Trump-era stances on major issues. She thinks tax reform didn't go far enough, for instance, and is very, very excited about building the wall. "Our southern border is a war zone," her closing ad intones. She used this as a through-line in her campaign against Tipirneni. In a debate last month, Lesko was unsubtle: "She doesn't agree with the border wall!"
Democrats also fielded a strong recruit in Tipirneni, a charismatic doctor, immigrant, and political newcomer whose relatively moderate positions made her a credible candidate in a district where Republicans outnumber Democrats two to one. Unlike the March special election in Pennsylvania, though, a spirited campaign was simply not enough to deliver Tipirneni into office in a heavily Republican district.
On its face, there is some modest good news here for the GOP. After leading the average of the national congressional generic ballot polls by as much as 13 points in December, the Democrats' lead has dropped down to about 5.5 points. If those numbers are correct, Democrats might have their work cut out for them, since analysts believe the party needs to win the national House vote by anywhere between 5 and 11 points to win back control. Better polling for congressional Republicans has coincided with a modest uptick in the president's approval ratings, which have rebounded from a December low of around 37 percent to over 41 percent today. While President Trump is still wildly unpopular in historical perspective for a president at this stage in his term, there is no question that most surveys have moved somewhat in his direction over the past few months.
Yet the president was also over 41 percent on March 13 too, and that didn't help Republican Rick Saccone in his Pennsylvania congressional race against Democrat Conor Lamb. Republicans have gained a couple of points in generic ballot polling since then, but not much has really changed in terms of the underlying political dynamics. If the GOP's polling surge was real, the swing to the Democrats should have been substantially smaller in Arizona than it was in Pennsylvania, especially absent non-stop press attention in a district even redder than PA-18. But it wasn't.
Tipirneni was always the longest of long shots in this deep red district, which President Trump carried by 21 points and where Franks had not faced a Democratic challenger since 2012. Cook Political Report's Partisan Voting Index puts this district at +13 for the GOP — in other words, it tends to vote more than a dozen points more Republican than the country as a whole. Yet Tipirneni came within 5 points of beating Lesko. That's a 16-point swing away from the Trump baseline, and 31 points away from Franks' margin of victory over his Green Party challenger in 2016. These are disaster numbers for the GOP and a strong indicator that retiring GOP Sen. Jeff Flake's seat is a goner.
If last night was a test of whether the political environment really has improved for Republicans, the party failed. Betting markets aren't buying the Republican rebound narrative. And Republicans continue to abandon ship in the House, most recently with the impending retirement of Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). And now we have this latest data point, with a huge swing against the GOP in a deep-red Arizona district where Lesko should have won going away rather than needing a million-dollar infusion of cash from the national party to hang on.
If Republicans were looking for solace in Trump's approval ratings or the generic ballot numbers, they definitely did not find any in AZ-08. If anything, Tipirneni's near miss will only encourage more sitting Republicans to cash in a little bit earlier than expected on their time in D.C. by heading for the nearest lobbying shop, think tank, or mid-morning Fox News slot instead of flaming out in November.
And in a broader sense, the race is an indictment of what seems to be the congressional GOP strategy between now and November: Accomplish nothing, stay quiet, and avoid major embarrassments or policy initiatives. That may indeed be preferable to plunging forward with another dissent-stirring legislative plan that is detested by a supermajority of the American people. But it's a poor excuse for a public policy agenda and an unworkable mess of a message to send to voters, one that seems to be doing even worse than was expected a year ago.