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JITTERS Republicans seek to avoid Dem upset in AZ

Issued: 2018-03-28

Republican groups are dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars into Arizona in the hopes of keeping any prospect of another Democratic upset in next month's special election at bay.

The GOP says it's confident that the party will keep control of the seat last held by ex-GOP Rep. Trent FranksHarold (Trent) Trent FranksRepublicans invest nearly 0,000 in red Arizona district GOP candidate: Sexual misconduct allegations against Trump need to be investigated GOP women’s group endorses challengers in top Senate, House races MORE, which represents a historically Republican area with a strong core of reliable GOP voters and retirees.

Still, national Republican groups have recently committed more than a half-million dollars to retain what should be a safe seat, which President TrumpDonald John TrumpCigna says it has reduced customers use of opioids by 25 percent Greens launch campaign to get Pruitt fired White House: 'Maximum pressure' campaign on North Korea is working MORE won by 21 points in 2016.

“I’m skeptical the Democrats can actually win, [but] the more activity there is on the Republican side, the more indication it is actually competitive, because the parties are the ones with the best numbers,” said Kyle Kondik, an elections analyst with the University of Virginia. “Losing Pennsylvania 18 was pretty embarrassing for Republicans. This would be worse.”

The Arizona race pits former state Sen. Debbie Lesko (R) against Democrat Hiral Tipirneni, a physician and first-time candidate, in the April 24 election. Franks resigned from the seat in December after allegedly discussing paying a staffer to carry his child.

Lesko served in the state legislature for nearly a decade, building relationships in the district. By comparison, Tipirneni is a political newcomer who will need to scramble to build up her name recognition.

But strategists on both sides of the aisle believe Tipirneni is a top-notch candidate, particularly after Democrats neglected to recruit challengers in the past two cycles.

With early voting kicking off Wednesday, Republicans are sending in reinforcements.

The Republican National Committee jumped into the race last week, investing nearly $300,000 in canvassing efforts. And the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) is spending $170,000 on TV in a coordinated buy with Lesko’s campaign, an NRCC official confirmed to The Hill.

Meanwhile, the Congressional Leadership Fund, a major GOP super PAC allied with Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanTrump pushes for added powers in spending fights Trump pushing Pentagon to pay for border wall: report Historian Meacham: GOP 'sold their soul for power and the check bounced' MORE (Wis.), is investing $100,000 in a digital and phone program.

In a normal political climate, Republicans wouldn’t have to spend any money to defend the seat. About 45 percent of the voting-age population is 55 or older; it’s overwhelmingly white; and Republicans make up 41 percent of registered voters in the district — a 17-point advantage over Democrats.

Arizona’s 8th District is also home to the expansive Sun City retirement community, which provides a loyal contingent of conservative voters. The district was also once the political stronghold of controversial former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, with Arpaio winning the district in 2016 even as he lost reelection.

Republicans maintain that they will hold the seat, even after recent losses in other GOP strongholds, because the district is filled with staunch conservatives who are less likely to flip to Democrats.

“The independents in this district are former Republicans frustrated that Republicans are not more conservative,” said Sean Noble, a GOP strategist in Arizona.

A poll conducted by Lake Research for Tipirneni’s campaign shows the Democrat trailing by 14 points. Lesko’s campaign told The Hill that those numbers aren’t far off from their own internal numbers, and that they’re comfortable with the double-digit edge, even if it’s below Trump’s 2016 margin.

Arizona Republicans are pitching the national investments as just a sign that the GOP is cautious after previous losses. They also noted that groups are getting in early because Arizona is a heavy vote-by-mail state, with ballots cast before election day.

“National Republicans are suffering from political PTSD over the Pennsylvania loss,” said Brett Mecum, an Arizona GOP strategist. “I think they are overcompensating of getting involved in [the 8th District] to ensure victory.”

Lesko’s campaign has touted her ability to ward off previous opponents and her decadelong tenure in the legislature. She’s well known among seniors for championing legislation that allowed people to drive golf carts on the side of the road in retirement communities.

The campaign welcomed any help from national Republican groups.

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