MARICOPA COUNTY, ARIZONA — Debbie Lesko put on a masterclass in expectations setting early Saturday.
Lesko, a Republican, is locked in an increasingly tight race with Democrat Hiral Tipirneni to replace former Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), who resigned from the House last year after news that he asked a staffer to be his surrogate became public.
On paper, Lesko has little reason to be nervous. Less than a year and a half ago, Trump won this Arizona district by 21 points, and in most polls in the weeks leading up to election day — next Tuesday — she’s led by double digits. But earlier this week, an Emerson college poll showed Tipirneni leading by one point, and Lesko appears to be feeling the heat.
“We have got to win because we cannot let this radical left with their radical agenda take over this country,” Lesko said Saturday morning at an Arizona GOP field office in Sun City, Arizona, where a group of about 70 people had gathered to hear her speak. “There’s radical left groups that have flown in from New York. She’s getting money from the unions. Money from all over the country, and she is lying.”
Lesko repeatedly decried the attack ads that Tipirneni and her allies were running on Saturday, citing a recent Arizona Republic story about the attack ads, which argue Lesko wants to cut social Security and Medicare, is responsible for a recent utility rate hike, and may be a criminal. The last point refers to a recent Federal Election Commission complaint filed by the Campaign Legal Center regarding the transfer of $50,000 from a political action committee (PAC) that supported Lesko’s state-based legislative races to a PAC that backs her congressional bid.
Lesko also hit Tipirneni for making her time as a doctor central to her congressional run, despite not having practiced medicine for 11 years. And, she said, she has also heard about Lesko yard signs being stolen.
“We cannot let these people win,” she said. “We need to keep standing up for the values that have made our nation great.”
What those values are, however, Lesko didn’t elaborate on. After hitting Tipirneni, she thanked volunteers and talked about her two decades of work in the Republican party.
And time and again Saturday morning, Lesko said she believes the race will be close, perhaps learning from Rep. Conor Lamb’s (D-PA) recent come from behind victory over Republican Rick Saccone in a special election last month, winning by less than a point in a district Trump won by a 20-point margin.
“This is going to be a battle this year. The Democrats are motivated. They’re motivated just like the Republicans were motivated when the Democrats were in charge,” Lesko said. “We wanted to take back our country. We wanted to be back in the majority, and the same thing is happening on the other side, so let us not take anything for granted.”
Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ) — who’s currently running to replace Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who’s retiring — joined Lesko at the event Saturday, encouraging people to throw themselves into supporting Lesko for, at the time she spoke, with just 81 hours and 45 minutes remaining before the polls closed.
“We need more Republican ovaries in Congress… Turn your ballot in! It’s sitting on your f—,” McSally told the crowd, almost letting a curse word slip before catching herself.
“It’s sitting on your table,” she laughed, adding, “I was going to say ‘freaking!'”
But despite McSally’s rallying cry to campaign right up until the polls close Tuesday, Lesko spokesperson Barrett Marson, told ThinkProgress that the race is essentially over and that the campaign won’t be doing events through the weekend.
“This race is done,” Marson said. That, he said, is because early voting began 28 days ago. According to Marson, nearly 80 percent of ballots have already been returned.
Even if those ballots add up to a win for Lesko, winning by a small margin won’t be good enough, her allies — like McSally — said Saturday morning.
— Debbie Lesko (@DebbieLesko) April 21, 2018
“They’re going to be analyzing. ‘Oh, she should’ve won by this much’,” McSally said, imitating a cable news talking head.
That, Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ) said, is why just winning isn’t enough.
“We need to crush them,” he said to cheers from the crowd.
In a short interview with ThinkProgress and Fox News following the event Saturday, Lesko spoke briefly about the issues she sees as most important to this race, including lower taxes and smaller government. But the number one issue, she said, is the building a border wall.
“My opponent is way too liberal for this district. She wants universal health care. That’s not a fit for this district,” Lesko said.
“She doesn’t want one penny going to the border wall, and that’s the number one issue here in our district. They want to secure the border, and I’m for securing the border, building the wall, adding more border agents, making sure we’re safe here in this country.”