Schweikert takes, expands lead, but Tipirneni vows to continue fight

After trailing early, Rep. David Schweikert, R-Fountain Hills, has gained the lead over Democratic challenger Hiral Tipirneni in unofficial returns for the 6th District congressional race. If current numbers hold, all nine incumbents in Arizona’s House delegation will be returned to Washington in 2021. (Photo courtesy Architect of the Capitol)

WASHINGTON – Several days of counting have flipped the outlook for the 6th District House race, with Rep. David Schweikert now leading Democratic challenger Hiral Tipirneni by just over 15,000 votes after trailing her on election night.

The 51.9% to 48.1% margin for Schweikert, R-Fountain Hills, on Friday is almost a mirror of the 52-48 lead Tipirneni held in early election night returns, and his lead had steadily grown in the days since. Despite the growing gap, Tipirneni’s campaign said she will not concede until every vote has been counted.

“This race is still too close to call,” said Hannah Gross, a Tipirneni campaign spokeswoman. “I think anyone who makes a declaration of outcome at this point would be pretty irresponsible given how many votes are left.”

Schweikert’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment Friday on the returns.

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Exactly how many votes are left in the 6th District race is unclear. Maricopa County still had 162,982 ballots uncounted on Friday, according to the Arizona Secretary of State’s office, but it did not say how many of those might be in the 6th District, which sits north of Phoenix.

Regardless of how many ballots remain to be counted, one analyst said they may not be of much help to Tipirneni. Paul Bentz, senior vice president of research and strategy for HighGround Public Affairs, said the ballots being counted now are from what experts have described as “late-early voters,” who have so far leaned Republican.

Bentz said Friday afternoon that Schweikert’s lead is “going to be very difficult to overcome with these final batches of votes.” He said that the first batch of early votes that were announced Tuesday were largely from Democrats who had sent in their ballots during the first and second week of voting, giving Tipirneni an edge on election night.

“Tipirneni definitely benefited from the early lead we saw among Democrats where they got their voters to be first-week and second-week voters,” Bentz said. “However we know that the Election Day voters, trended very Republican and Schweikert was able to catch up among those … voters.”

Rep. David Schweikert, R-Fountain Hills, was thought to be the most vulnerable member of Arizona’s House delegation, but he is now leading in his re-election bid. (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons)

Besides Election Day voters leaning Republican, Bentz said it appears that many of the people who voted late in the early voting period – the “late-early voters” – were also GOP voters. Those are the ballots being counted now.

As of Friday evening, Schweikert had 208,500 votes to Tipirneni’s 193,248.

“The margin has stayed very close between the two,” Bentz said. “This race is going to come down to what those remaining ballot drop-offs looked like.”

If the numbers hold, it is likely that all nine House incumbents will be returned to Washington for the next Congress in 2021.

The only other incumbent who was thought to be vulnerable was Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Sedona, who faced a challenge in the sprawling 1st District from Republican Tiffany Shedd.

But O’Halleran jumped out to a 52-48% lead on election night and that lead has largely held. As of Friday night, O’Halleran had 174,562 votes to Shedd’s 162,995, a margin of 51.71% to 48.29%.

No other incumbent has polled less than 55% of the vote in their races, with Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, getting a whopping 76% of the vote in his south Phoenix district, according to the secretary of state’s office.

Despite representing a district where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats 206,356 to 144,231, Schweikert was thought to be vulnerable this year after a long-running House Ethics Committee probe into his handling of office and campaign funds.

Democrat Hiral Tipirneni raised $5.4 million for her campaign and briefly held the lead in the race for Arizona’s 6th District seat in Congress. (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons)

In June, Schweikert admitted to 11 counts of campaign finance violations and misuse of congressional office funds, among other charges, and was fined $50,000 by the committee.

While that was going on, Tipirneni was raising $5.4 million for her campaign to Schweikert’s $2 million, making it the most expensive House race in the state this year. Tipirneni’s financial advantage in a district with 165,641 independent voters was thought to give her a shot at unseating Schweikert, and polls showed her within striking distance.

Bentz said it proved to be “a very steep hill” for Tipirneni to climb.

“Ultimately it’s a very valiant effort she made,” Bentz said. “It’s much closer than people believed it would be, but this is still at its heart a very Republican-dominated district.”

But Goss said Tipirneni is not ready to throw in the towel until every vote has been counted.

“In a race such as this, it is a clear testament to the fundamental principle that every vote should be counted,” she said Friday.

News Broadcast Producer, Phoenix

MacKenzie Belley expects to graduate in May 2021 with a degree in journalism with a focus on broadcast production. Belley, who previously worked for Arizona PBS and as a reporter for Cronkite News in Washington, is a broadcast producer this spring.