Democrats face momentum test in Arizona special election

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Arizonans vote Tuesday to fill the seat left vacant by former Rep. Trent Franks, who resigned in December amid sexual harassment accusations from members of his staff. (Source: AP Photo) Arizonans vote Tuesday to fill the seat left vacant by former Rep. Trent Franks, who resigned in December amid sexual harassment accusations from members of his staff. (Source: AP Photo)

By Kyung Lah and Jack Hannah, CNN

(CNN) -- In Tuesday's special election in an Arizona House race outside of Phoenix, candidate Hiral Tipirneni is hoping to become the next Democrat to pull off an upset victory in a reliably Republican district.

[GO TO: Election results from Secretary of State's Office]

After victories in Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district and Alabama's senate race, Democrats face another key test of their momentum heading into the midterm elections in Arizona's 8th congressional district, where Donald Trump won in 2016 by 21 points.

Despite their momentum, the makeup of the district -- where Republican Rep. Trent Franks resigned in December amid sexual harassment allegations -- poses a significant challenge for Tipirneni, who is facing off against Republican Debbie Lesko.

There are approximately 78,000 more Republican registered voters than Democrats in the district. Among those who have voted early, 49% are Republicans to 28% who are Democrats.

"I understand we have different registration numbers than say, the Pennsylvania numbers. And this is a different race than Alabama," Tipirneni said. "But CD 8 is not the CD 8 everyone assumed it is. The same momentum is here. And what I know for sure is that people have come out in every nook and cranny in the district."

[READ MORE: Why the electoral battlefield is expanding in Arizona]

[RELATED: What to watch: Arizona special election]

State Democrats say Tipirneni's race, if she can close the 21-point Trump gap significantly, also propels long-held hopes that Arizona is inching towards becoming a battleground state. Trump won the state by 3 points in 2016 and demographic shifts increasingly diversify the state year after year.

Tipirneni points out what she refers to as a backhanded compliment from national Republicans: Republican have spent a combined $1.1 million on the House race.

"I think they're scared," Tipirneni said. "Why else are they investing in a race that they haven't invested in in years?"

"Scared" isn't the characterization her opponent Lesko would use. The longtime Arizona state senator is the Republican nominee and prefers to say she needs to energize and motivate Republican voters and that the spending shows her party is "not taking anything for granted."

"I think that I'm going to win, but there's definitely a different feeling this year than in past years that I've run at the state level," Lesko said. "The Democrats are very motivated this year."

[RELATED: Republican favored to win Arizona special election, but it could be close]

Lesko, whirling around a retirement community in the heart of the district in a golf cart for our interview, points out she's old enough to live in the 55+ age community, just like most of her voters. The golf cart is particularly symbolic for Lesko, who introduced a law allowing golf carts to drive on the street shoulders of roadways, just like bicycles. The 2014 golf cart law was so popular among voters in this district that Lesko still beams with pride as she recalls the parade the retirement communities held for her.

[RELATED: Democrat looks for upset in strong GOP district in Arizona]

[SPECIAL SECTION: Arizona politics]

"It was awesome, I love the folks in Sun City!" the grandmother says enthusiastically, her blonde hair and red, white & blue scarf whipping in the wind as the golf cart zooms down the roadway. "We had a golf cart parade here in Sun City. The people put up a big banner that said, 'Thank You Debbie Lesko and Welcome Governor Brewer.'"

Lesko aligns herself with many of Trump's policies, from immigration to taxes to the Second Amendment. Lesko says she doesn't expect to maintain Trump's 21-point spread in the district, noting it's a special election where Republicans hold the majority in the House, Senate and White House. But she wants to win by at least 10%, she said.

"It would be nice to win by double digits so that in November it's pretty clear -- don't mess with this district," Lesko said.

Whoever wins this special election, the winner will still have to run in November.

Tipirneni also eyes November, who at every stop talks about Arizona Democrats challenging Republicans in statewide, local and the governor's race. She also acknowledges her political career doesn't end with this one election.

"Whatever happens on April 24, I'm committed to run in the fall," Tipirneni said. "I know that what we've built and grown here, will lend itself to more momentum. More energy in getting out the vote for all the critical races coming up in the fall."

Tipirneni will need disaffected Republican voters to support her in order to flip the district on Tuesday.

Warren Brannoch, a registered Republican, said he is a 'maybe' on Tipirneni.

Brannoch said he voted for Trump in 2016 and just six days before the election, sat in the senior town hall at the Sun Valley Community Center. Brannoch said despite his chosen party, he had not made up his mind yet. He wanted to see Tipirneni in person and find out what all the fuss was about.

"It's kind of weighing the options and seeing who you connect with best," he said. "These candidates have to realize that. They're representing us. We are their constituents. And we will either vote for them or vote them out of office."

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