Republican Debbie Lesko won a special election to replace Trent Franks in Arizona’s 8th congressional district, though her far narrower-than-expected margin of victory marks another sign Republican control of the House may be at risk.
Lesko, a former state representative, defeated Democrat Hiral Tipirneni by roughly five percent, staving off another embarrassing loss for Republicans following the defeat of Rick Saccone in the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th district and Doug Jones’ victory in the Alabama Senate special election.
While some say “a win is a win,” Lesko’s five-point margin of victory is notable given former Representative Trent Franks, who was forced to resign following revelations he discussed the prospect of surrogacy with several of his staffers, never won reelection with less than 65 percent of the vote in a district described by The New York Times as “full of AARP-eligible snowbirds, reliably Republican Mormons and military families who work at nearby Luke Air Force Base.”
The district, which encompasses several suburban communities north and west of Phoenix in Maricopa County, gave President Donald Trump a 20 percentage point margin of victory over Hillary Clinton. Trump’s victory was slightly narrower than Romney’s 25 point victory over President Obama in 2012.
As such, the special election between Lesko and Tirpirneni marked a roughly 14 point shift from Republican to Democrat since Trump’s election – continuing a trend of Republican underperformance (and Democratic over performance) that has repeated itself in nearly every special election since.
Of the other six congressional special elections contested by both parties since Trump was elected, only Karen Handel in Georgia’s 6th district and John Curtis in Utah’s 3rd district have matched or outperformed Trump’s margin of victory (by 2 percent and 8 percent respectively).
Ron Estes in Kansas’ 4th district underperformed Trump by 21 percent, while Montana’s at-large representative Greg Gianforte underperformed Trump by 14 percent. In addition, Republican Ralph Norman underperformed Trump’s margin of victory by 16 percent in South Carolina’s 5th district.
Most recently, Republican Rick Saccone underperformed Trump by almost 19 percent when he lost to Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania’s 18th district.
When a congressional district’s Cook Partisan Voting Index (PVI) is taken into consideration, there are 147 seats currently held by Republicans that are less safe than Arizona’s eighth district. At least 30 of those seats could already be described as toss-ups or leaning Democratic outright.
As generic polls have seem the once double-digit Democratic lead over Republicans narrow considerably, the prospect of Democrats capturing control of the House is less certain.
However, the notable underperformance of Republican candidates in special elections, combined with historical trends that show the party in power losing seats in a midterm election, should leave Republicans incredibly uneasy despite their improving polling numbers.
It’s a long, long time from April to November (in political terms), but if you’re a Republican and you look objectively at all the special elections in the Trump era, you can’t be sanguine about what’s coming.#AZ08
— Larry Sabato (@LarrySabato) April 25, 2018