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Another Special Election, Another Really Bad Sign For The GOP

One might describe Arizona’s 8th Congressional District as … nondescript. Covering portions of Phoenix’s northern and western suburbs, including the Arizona Cardinals’ home stadium, the district isn’t all that geographically or demographically distinct, containing a largely older, largely white population of professionals and retirees. The area has traditionally been extremely Republican, having voted for John McCain by 22 points in 2008, Mitt Romney by 25 points in 2012, and President Trump by 21 points in 2016. It has a growing number of Hispanics, but Hispanics make up a considerably smaller share of the voting population than of its population overall.

Nor was there anything especially unusual about the candidates who competed in the special election there on Tuesday — Republican Debbie Lesko, a state senator, and Democrat Hiral Tipirneni, a doctor. Each won their respective primaries by solid-but-not-overwhelming margins, and each raised about the same amount of money for their general election campaigns. They’re competent, uncontroversial candidates who are representative of the sorts of people who will be nominated throughout the country in the midterms this November.

In other words, Arizona 8 doesn’t make for a lot of headlines. There was no Roy Moore equivalent in the district — and not even a Greg Gianforte. The district moved ever so slightly toward Democrats between 2012 and 2016, but it wasn’t a place where the political trends were changing all that rapidly or where Democrats actually expected to be within striking distance (as they did in Georgia’s highly educated, suburban 6th Congressional District, where Democrat Jon Ossoff lost to Republican opponent Karen Handel in a special election last year). Arizona 8 is essentially a “generic,” but very red, congressional district.

But that very lack of distinctiveness probably makes Arizona 8 a more reliable data point. There are no particular contingencies related to the candidates or the campaigns or the demographics of the district that complicate the outcome or give many excuses for it.

And although the Republican, Lesko, is the apparent winner, the election represents another really bad data point for the GOP. Lesko’s margin of victory was only 5 percentage points in a district that typically votes Republican by much, much more than that. The outcome represented a 20-point swing toward Democrats relative to the district’s FiveThirtyEight partisan lean, which is derived from how it voted for president in 2016 and 2012 relative to the country.

Democratic overperformance in federal special elections
Year Date Seat Partisan Lean Vote Margin Dem. Swing
2017 April 4 California 34th* D+69 D+87 18
April 11 Kansas 4th R+29 R+6 23
May 25 Montana At-Large R+21 R+6 16
June 20 Georgia 6th R+9 R+4 6
June 20 South Carolina 5th R+19 R+3 16
Nov. 7 Utah 3rd R+35 R+32 3
Dec. 12 Alabama U.S. Senate R+29 D+2 31
2018 March 13 Pennsylvania 18th R+21 D+0.3 22
April 24 Arizona 8th R+25 R+5 20

Partisan lean is the average difference between how the constituency voted and how the country voted overall in the last two presidential elections, with 2016 weighted 75 percent and 2012 weighted 25 percent.

* Results are from the all-party primary, which included multiple Democratic candidates; results reflect the total vote share for all Democratic candidates combined.

Sources: Daily Kos Elections, secretaries of state

The silver lining for Republicans isn’t that Lesko won. If Republicans are winning by only 5 points in this sort of extremely red district in November, dozens of more competitive seats will flop to Democrats — more than enough for them to take the House. Rather, the “good” news is that Republicans have endured lots of this sort of bad news already. Before Tuesday night, Democrats had outperformed their partisan baseline by an average of 17 points in congressional special elections so far this cycle. So the Arizona result was only slightly worse for Republicans than previous ones.

The bigger question is what to make of the disparity between the overwhelming swing toward Democrats so far in special election results — which would imply a Democratic wave on par with the historic Republican years of 1994 and 2010 — and the considerably more modest one suggested by the generic congressional ballot, which shows Democrats ahead by only 7 points and implies that the battle for House control is roughly a toss-up.1 One plausible answer is that the generic ballot will shift further toward Democrats once voters become more engaged with the campaign in their respective districts and pollsters switch over to likely voter models. Still, both the generic ballot and special election results (when taken in the aggregate) are fairly reliable indicators. Rather than choosing between them, it’s best to consider both. That means entertaining a wide range of scenarios that run between Republicans narrowly holding onto the House and an epic Democratic wave.


  1. A 7-point victory in the House popular vote might not be enough for Democrats to win the majority of seats given Republicans’ advantages from gerrymandering, incumbency and the concentration of Democrats in urban districts.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.