Last night, Republican Debbie Lesko beat Democrat Hiral Tipirneni in a special election for Arizona’s eighth congressional district, a Phoenix suburb with demographics that skew wealthier, whiter, and older than national medians.
On the surface, this may make some people say, “Well, duh.” Sounds like a Republican slam dunk, right?
Not so much. One day after Tipirneni’s concession, it’s her loss, rather than Lesko’s win, that everyone’s talking about.
For those who don’t know much about Arizona’s eighth congressional district, you may recall that its previous congressman Trent Franks abruptly resigned in late 2017 after it was discovered that he was asking female staffers to become surrogate mothers. If that wasn’t bad enough, his suggested means of impregnation was them having sex with him. While Hiral Tipirneni was already planning on running against Franks in November, his resignation set the scene for the special election — and it also did so with the backdrop of the #MeToo movement.
So why is Tirpirneni’s loss such a good thing? For one thing, Trent Franks didn’t even have an official Democratic challenger on the ballot in 2016, and he beat his Green Party opponent by a whopping 37 points. Lesko, on the other hand, only beat Tipirneni by five points 17 months later. Second, despite its demographics, the entire district as a whole shifted more Democratic, which bodes well for the midterms in November. In other words, Democrats weren’t even in the race a year and a half ago, and now they’re competitive and within striking distance of victory.
Looking at the larger trends we’ve seen from special elections, Democrats have been far out-performing historic polling across the country, including in districts that were considered ruby red up until this year. The victories of candidates like Doug Jones in Alabama and Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania got much of the coverage, but there are plenty of other wins to celebrate, including Democrats this week getting their 40th state legislature pick-up since the start of the Trump era.
That said, Tipirneni’s campaign is even more important than some of the elections that have unfolded in recent months. Unlike Jones and Lamb, who were a U.S. District Attorney and an Assistant U.S. District Attorney respectively and are both white men, Tipirneni is a doctor, a cancer research advocate, and a woman of color; she’s not a political operative or connected to larger political infrastructure. In a campaign cycle with so many women running for office and especially so many who don’t come from backgrounds that are more “traditional” for politics, it’s an exciting and inspiring sight as primaries heat up in May and continue through September.
Where does that leave us heading into the midterms? If a progressive female doctor of color can make such huge gains in a majority-White, conservative Arizona suburb well over a year after the initial post-2016 election Democratic fervor was supposedly going to wear off, no seat is safe over the next six months, including Lesko’s.
And if there was any reason not to support a candidate, particularly a woman candidate, because she didn’t “fit the mold” and has a difficult path to victory, now’s the time to set those concerns aside. I said it in November 2017 and I’ll say it again: Women—and especially Democratic women — are putting everyone on notice. And anyone who stands in their way had better be terrified.
Lily Herman is a contributing editor at Refinery29 and the founder of political volunteer network Get Her Elected. Follow her on Twitter. The views expressed are her own.
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