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Arizona's Special Election


Democrats got a boost this week as Conor Lamb appears to have squeaked out a win in a Pennsylvania special election. It's an upset in a congressional district President Trump won by 20 points in 2016. Now Democrats in Arizona hope to duplicate that upset in another special congressional election on April 24.

Arizona's 8th District is also a red district Trump carried by about 20 points. It's a seat that's also being vacated by a Republican who resigned after personal controversy. We're joined now by Laurie Roberts, a columnist with The Arizona Republic. Ms. Roberts, thanks for being with us.

LAURIE ROBERTS: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: And please tell us about these two candidates.

ROBERTS: Well, the Republican candidate who's running is Debbie Lesko. She's a longtime state legislator - quite conservative. She is the Arizona coordinator for the American Legislative Exchange Council, so that'll give you sort of a feel for her points of view.

Her Democratic opponent, who, by the way, is the first time that Democrats have run an opponent in this district since 2002 - is a woman named Hiral Tipirneni. She is of Indian descent, came here with her parents when she was, oh, I think, under 5 years old, grew up and became an emergency room doctor.

SIMON: And based on what you've seen so far in the campaign, does Ms. Lesko cite President Trump as any kind of inspiration or example? What kind of relationship does Ms. Tipirneni seem to have with the national Democrats?

ROBERTS: Debbie Lesko is certainly of the Trump - if there is such a thing as the Trump wing of the party. Most of the candidates in the Republican primary spent all of their time trying to out-Trump the other one. Hiral, I think, is what you would consider a moderate Democrat. There was another Democrat, certainly more what they would call progressive, who opposed her in the primary and did surprisingly well.

SIMON: And what's the character of Arizona's 8th District?

ROBERTS: It's a little different from Pennsylvania, I would say. While the Pennsylvania District is, technically speaking, has more Democrats than Republicans, this is a district that is made up of 41 percent Republicans - far fewer Democrats and quite a lot of independents we have here. Where in Pennsylvania you have a lot of shuttered coal mines and steel mills, here, we're talking golf courses filled with retirees and rec centers.

Hard-line conservative, deep red district was held for many years by Trent Franks, who was one of the more conservative members of Congress until he had his, as you call them, personal difficulties. It would be surprising anytime to see this district deviate from a deeply conservative point of view.

SIMON: Arizona's a border state, although this district would be well north of that. What kind of issue is immigration in the district?

ROBERTS: Immigration is a huge issue. Immigration is a huge issue all over the state, but certainly in this district as well. This is a district that would go along with Trump's philosophy of, let's build that wall. Let's build it higher, bigger, deeper, you know, whatever, and then we'll deal with the issue of the people who are here later on.

SIMON: So the factors that led to an upset in Pennsylvania, are they at all at play in this district in Arizona?

ROBERTS: They are energized, and they are ready. And they believe that they can pull a Pennsylvania here in Arizona. I'm a little skeptical of that just because I think there are underlying differences in the districts. Certainly, Pennsylvania came for Trump 20 points up - this district 21 points up.

But this district has always gone for Republicans at every level. I can't think of a single Democrat who represents this area, jeez, in the legislature anywhere. I don't - I just don't see it myself, and I'm taking some heat from Democrats for saying that, but certainly, they are energized. And certainly, they believe they have a shot, and they certainly have not had a shot in the past. So that's a change.

SIMON: Laurie Roberts, columnist with The Arizona Republic. Thanks so much for being with us.

ROBERTS: Thank you.

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