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GOP Groups Pour Money Into Upcoming Arizona Special Election


Voters northwest of Phoenix are choosing a replacement for Republican Congressman Trent Franks who abruptly resigned last year. As Bret Jaspers from member station KJZZ reports, Democrats are hoping for a repeat of last month's upset in another special election in Pennsylvania.

BRET JASPERS, BYLINE: Last weekend, Democrat Hiral Tipirneni had a reminder for the dozens of volunteers gathered at a school west of Phoenix.


HIRAL TIPIRNENI: After what we learned in Pennsylvania, every vote counts. We know this.


TIPIRNENI: Every vote - nobody can afford to sit it out.

JASPERS: Tipirneni sees a path to victory.

TIPIRNENI: Talk about the issues. We're not talking about the ideology. You know, it's not a D versus R thing. It's a, hey, I have a health care plan that's going to get us to a place where every American has quality, affordable health care. My opponent does not.

JASPERS: Tipirneni is a physician. She had planned on challenging Franks in this fall's midterms, but he resigned amid sexual harassment allegations in December. In the special primary election, a slew of Republicans ran to replace him. A well-known state lawmaker won, Debbie Lesko.

DEBBIE LESKO: This is a special election. This is the only one going on in the entire country, and we Republicans need to prove to the Democrats that they do not have a chance of winning in this solid Republican district.

JASPERS: How solid? The last time this suburban area sent a Democrat to Congress was 1980. That guy then switched parties. Early voting numbers show the number of registered Republicans who have sent in their ballots outnumber Democrats by over 28,000. Sitting on her golf cart in a strip mall parking lot, Republican Peggy Harmon (ph) says she already voted for Lesko.

PEGGY HARMON: 'Cause she's Republican.

JASPERS: (Laughter).

HARMON: We don't need no more Democrats. So I vote for all Republicans now.

JASPERS: Straight down the line?

HARMON: Straight down the line.

JASPERS: And yet national GOP groups are spending significantly on the race. The Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee have together put in over $700,000 for things like TV ads and door-to-door canvassers. House Speaker Paul Ryan is headlining a fundraiser for Lesko today in D.C. Alex Conant is a Republican strategist who argues the money is an insurance policy.

ALEX CONANT: However, I think the costs for Republicans - if they were to somehow neglect the race and somehow lose it - would be a big problem. So I think that's part of why you're seeing the party make this modest investment.

JASPERS: Democratic groups, meanwhile, have spent very little here. Although, Tipirneni's campaign has raised more than Lesko's. To win, they'll need voters like John Eckardt (ph). He usually votes Republican but is nervous that the GOP might make changes to Medicare and Social Security.

JOHN ECKARDT: This fooling with the Medicare and Social Security is a bad thing because the people have worked for it and paid into it for all the years that they worked. They should get it.

JASPERS: Lesko says she'd never vote to cut those programs for current retirees but has supported the idea of changes for future beneficiaries. And there's another wild card making GOP activist Lezlee Alexander (ph) nervous.

LEZLEE ALEXANDER: You never know what's coming out of D.C. and how it's going to affect everybody.

JASPERS: Meaning, something that President Trump might do or say?

ALEXANDER: Yeah. Exactly.

JASPERS: Tuesday's result could end Republicans' jitters for now. Whichever candidate wins, of course, will have to run again in the fall. For NPR News, I'm Bret Jaspers in Phoenix.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bret Jaspers is a reporter for KERA. His stories have aired nationally on the BBC, NPR’s newsmagazines, and APM’s Marketplace. He collaborated on the series Cash Flows, which won a 2020 Sigma Delta Chi award for Radio Investigative Reporting. He's a member of Actors' Equity, the professional stage actors union.