‘Not your grandparents’ Arizona anymore’: Democrat makes run at special election in Trump country

Hiral Tipirneni is the latest Democrat to challenge for a congressional seat in a deep red district.

Tipirneni (second from left) with supporters Saturday. CREDIT: Addy Baird
Tipirneni (second from left) with supporters Saturday. CREDIT: Addy Baird

GLENDALE, AZ—On Saturday, more than 100 people packed into a high school lunchroom in Glendale, Arizona to hear Hiral Tipirneni, the Democratic nominee to replace former Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), speak before heading out to knock on doors in hopes of bringing more Arizona voters into the fold.

Tipirneni is running in Arizona’s eighth district, which President Donald Trump won by more than 20 points just less than a year and a half ago. But two recent polls (one an internal poll released by the Tipirneni campaign) have had the Indian-American doctor within a point or tied with Republican rival Debbie Lesko, with eight to nine percent of voters still undecided.

On Saturday, Tipirneni told the crowd she’s been asked a number of times why she didn’t run in a district more friendly to her liberal views.

“Well, first of all, this is my home,” the candidate said. “This is where I’ve been for 21 years, and if I’m going to make an impact, I’m going to do it right here.”


That dedication to her home district is something Tipirneni has sought to demonstrate by focusing on health care issues — she promises to go to Washington and fight for universal health care — and vowing to protect social security and public education while rejecting tax cuts for the wealthy.

But that’s only part of the reason Tipirneni was dead set on running in the eighth district.

“Second of all, there should be no foregone conclusion,” she said Saturday. “Nobody should be getting into office to represent hundreds of thousands of people by default, and that’s what has been happening in this district for much too long.”

Tipirneni’s two-fold reasoning for running in the eighth district is illustrative of the complicated balancing act Democrats have been forced to perform during the special election to replace Franks. While they see focusing on the district as the best strategy for flipping the district, they also want to send a message to Republicans everywhere — a message that essentially boils down to “That’s right, be scared.”


At Saturday’s event, Tipirneni and her allies never mentioned Trump’s name. For them, Lesko is enemy number one. In an interview with ThinkProgress last week, Tipirneni said she wasn’t “running some sort of national Democratic campaign here.” Volunteers for her campaign said that her focus on the district was a big part of what has inspired them.

“I’ve been really impressed with everything she says. It sounds like really common sense positions that will really be helpful,” one volunteer, Jan McLaughlin, told ThinkProgress. “People seem to be responding very positively to her. Health care, all of her positions, actually. All of the top things she’s talked about, people are very concerned about right now.”

Another volunteer, Pat Price, a retired teacher, told ThinkProgress she was inspired to volunteer after watching Lesko’s years of cutting school funding as a state legislator.

“I’m a victim of Debbie Lesko. Honestly,” Price said. “I’m an educator, I see what’s going on in schools due to her legacy, I’ll say it.”

Frank Copple, another volunteer, said he’s been volunteering for Tipirneni because he wants to secure the same opportunities for his grandsons that were afforded to him, including a good public education, job, and secure retirement.

“I’m gonna make sure that they have the opportunities that I have,” Copple said. “I see where we’re going in this country, and it worries me about my grandsons.”

But as Felecia Rotellini, the chair of Arizona’s Democratic party, made clear to ThinkProgress, this race is about more than just the eighth district. Asked about recent polls that have had Tipirneni increasingly close to Lesko, Rotellini said those polls prove something she’s known for a long time.


“It is telling me what we have always known,” she said. “We have watched the progressive change of the demographics in this district as younger folks moved in, younger retirees, and as folks who were moderate Republicans and independents in other states came to Arizona, saw the type of candidates and the policies of the Republicans and began to pledge that they would vote Democrat.”

The stereotypes about Arizona being filled with older Republican voters aren’t true anymore, she said.

“This is not your grandparents’ Arizona anymore,” Rotellini said. “We are on a political tipping point.”

Democrats already see the race as a success. They’ve forced national Republicans to pour resources into a district Trump won by more than 20 points, something Rotellini said is an indicator that things are changing. Rotellini also hit her GOP counterparts, telling ThinkProgress that she believes it “takes no courage” to run as a Republican in historically safe Republican districts.

“As a result, they have become complacent in their belief that all they have to do is show up and they’ll win,” she said.

Tipirneni and the party are walking a fine line: They have worked to make this election about issues that directly affect the lives of her potential future constituents, but as election day — and the polling — inches closer, it’s increasingly hard to resist the temptation of sending a national message.

“These are the issues we are talking about,” Tipirneni said Saturday, referring to health care, public education, and protecting social security and Medicaid. “What I think that people don’t get at the national level sometimes is these are the Arizona values. There are the things that we believe in, and it doesn’t have to do with the national dialogue, it doesn’t have to do with the numbers of registration, it has to do with what matters to our families.”

But, she said, that’s also why her opponent, Lesko, has “gotten a lot of support from national organizations.”

“They know that we can win this race,” she said. “They know that there’s a chance that they can lose.”

Rotellini put it another way: “The Republicans are absolutely afraid that their time is up.” 

Their time is up,” she said with emphasis, confidently proclaiming her belief that every statewide elected Republican is vulnerable, and that Democrats are going to preserve all their current congressional seats.

And that’s not all, she said.

“We’re going to win that Senate seat,” Rotellini said, referring to the seat currently occupied by Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who has announced he is retiring. “We’re going to win the United States Senate seat.”