PHOENIX (CN) — In a special election Tuesday in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District, Republican Debbie Lesko defeated Democrat Hiral Tiperneni by 5 percentage points in a strongly Republican district of Phoenix suburbs that Donald Trump won by 21 points in 2016.
Lesko took 91,390 votes, or 52.6 percent, to Tipirneni’s 82,318, or 47.4 percent, with all the votes counted, according to the Arizona Secretary of State. Turnout was 30.8 percent.
Lesko will fill a seat left vacated by former Rep. Trent Franks, also a Republican, who resigned last year amid allegations he’d offered staff members $5 million to serve as the surrogate mother for his child.
Lesko is a former state representative and senator; Tipirneni is a physician specializing in emergency care and a first-time candidate for public office.
Arizona’s 8th Congressional District is centered on suburbs north and west of Phoenix — a generally prosperous area. It is 74 percent white, 18 percent Latino and 3 percent black.
“This is really quite overwhelming. It’s very surreal,” Lesko said around midnight. “Twenty-five years ago I left an abusive husband, and I sure as heck never would have dreamt in a million years that I would be running for Congress and be a congresswoman.”
According to the Secretary of State’s Office, of the 150,000 residents who voted early almost half were registered Republicans. Only about one-quarter were Democrats.
After The Associated Press called the race for Lesko, Tipirneni held a news conference Tuesday night to address her numbers. She did not accept her loss until Wednesday morning.
“Now that nearly all of the votes are counted, we know that the special election goes to our opponent,” Tipirneni said on Twitter. “I congratulate Debbie Lesko on a hard-fought campaign & wish her good luck in Congress.”
Lesko, 59, survived a tough primary race with 12 candidates that included allegations of campaign finance violations against her: transferring $50,000 from her state Senate campaign fund to her run for Congress. The allegation came from fellow Republicans.
Lesko is an ardent supporter of Donald Trump, including his proposed wall at the border, which she made a campaign issue.
A Democrat has not been elected to the seat since 1980, and the party has not bothered to run a candidate since 2012 due to the heavily Republican electorate.
The Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee put $900,000 behind Lesko.
National Democratic groups did not open up their wallets as much for Tipirneni’s campaign, but individuals contributed more than $740,000 to Tipirneni, compared to Lesko’s $560,000, according to the Federal Election Commission.
Lesko will complete Franks’ term, which ends in January, and will have to run for the seat again in November. She may have to face Tipirneni again.
“We are taking this to November,” Tipirneni said. “We’re taking this all the way because CD8 deserves a voice and representation that reflects our entire district.”
National Democratic groups are expected to invest more time and money in the seat, given Tuesday’s results.
Felecia Rotellini, chairwoman of the Arizona Democratic Party, is hoping turn the district’s newfound enthusiasm into competition across the state.
“Republicans have shown in this race that they are worried about their ability to elect candidates up and down the ticket in 2018,” she said. “Six months ago, Arizona’s Eighth was a so-called ‘safe Republican district’ and today, Dr. Hiral Tipirneni made it competitive. The fight has just begun.”
Lesko will soon travel to Washington D.C. to fill in for Franks in the House.