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As Republican Lesko Heads To D.C., Arizona Democrats See Opportunity

Debbie Lesko won the race for Arizona's 8th Congressional District on Tuesday night. She’ll represent the northwest Valley in Congress.

Her margin of victory was about 5 points and turnout was 38 percent of registered voters. KJZZ’s Bret Jaspers spent time at gatherings for both candidates Tuesday night.

LAUREN GILGER: Good morning.

BRET JASPERS: Good morning.

GILGER: Both candidates were celebrating last night, right?

JASPERS: I think so. Lesko is going to Congress and her opponent, Democrat Hiral Tipirneni, got way closer than previous results in this district would have suggested. You know, we can get into the politics a little later but I think both Lesko and Tipirneni were a bit reflective last night. Here’s Lesko speaking at the podium.

"You know, I’ve really come a long way. And this is really quite overwhelming. It’s very surreal. 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. I mean, wow."

Lesko is that person who started as a party activist, doing voter registration and worked her way up. Now she’s going to Washington.

GILGER: And what about her opponent, Hiral Tipirneni?

JASPERS: Well, she’s one of those Democratic candidates who decided to run after the 2016 election. So I asked her, what did you learn from the experience? And she said running for Congress confirmed for her that politics is about individual people and families — which is what she hoped it would be.

"There’s so much goodness out there. I cannot tell you how honored I’ve been to run. It’s been a humbling experience to carry all these amazing stories with me every single day. I just, it’s sort of re-affirmed all of the ideas that you know that there’s more goodness than bad. And there’s a lot of hardworking people that just want someone to be the fighter on their behalf."

GILGER: OK, now on to the politics. As we said at the top, Lesko won by five points, and President Trump won this district by 21 points.

JASPERS: That’s right. This is another data point for Democrats to argue that a so-called “blue wave” is coming. This is Steven Slugocki with the Maricopa County Democrats.

"I am confident that we’re gonna win the senator’s race, that we’re gonna win the governor’s race. And we’re gonna win in a lot of areas that we — two years ago, four years ago — we would’ve never have won in. But we’re gonna be able to do it this year if these results continue."

GILGER: But a win is a win, right? You have to win to vote in legislation.

JASPERS: That’s what Republicans at the Lesko party last night were saying. When I asked them about November they said, we have to turn out our voters, activate new voters. One official said that President Trump is not hurting chances for Republicans in November.

GILGER: So they’re not ready to go there yet?

JASPERS: No. But over the weekend, Rep. Martha McSally, a Republican running for U.S. Senate in Arizona, told Lesko volunteers that the margin of victory here matter.

"But they’re gonna be watching. And you know what? We have to win big. Because even, they’ll, they’ll be analyzing like, ‘Oh, well she shoulda won by this, by that, whatever and then that’s all gonna be about like, ‘Ooh, this is an indication for November,’ OK? So, she has got to crush this race, OK?"

That analyzing is now happening.

GILGER: We’re doing it right now.

JASPERS: Yes. You know, Republican groups spent about a million dollars on this race and Democratic groups did not spend nearly as much. It seems reasonable that this result would make them think that this district is worth spending on. And certainly this gives Democrats and Republicans even more reason to spend money and staff on Arizona statewide races.

GILGER:  And Tipirneni says she’s running again this November.

JASPERS: That’s right. We’ll see if any other Republicans or Democrats jump in as well.

Bret Jaspers was previously the managing editor for news at WSKG in upstate New York. Before that, he was a producer at WYPR in Baltimore and at Wisconsin Public Radio.His stories have aired on NPR’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, and Here & Now, and also the BBC and Marketplace. Way back when, he started as an intern and fill-in producer at WNYC’s On the Media, and then helped out on The Brian Lehrer Show and Soundcheck.When he's not covering the news, he's probably running, reading, or eating. Jaspers is also a member of Actors' Equity Association, the union for professional stage actors.