Voters in congressional district 8 selected Republican Debbie Lesko and Democrat Haral Tipirneni as candidates to replace former Congressman Trent Franks.
A scandal in late 2017 forced Congressman Trent Franks to resign after serving continuously for nearly 15 years. Franks allegedly asked several of his female staffers to be surrogates for his and his wife’s child. It was reported that he offered at least one of the women $5 million to carry his child. (LINK TO DRY HEAT).
After pressure from House leadership, Franks resigned and set the stage for a highly competitive Republican primary. District 8 covers much of the western and far northern Phoenix metro area, including Peoria, Surprise, and Sun City West. The district is a Republican stronghold, which Franks won with nearly 70 percent of the vote in 2016.
According to the Cook Partisan Voter Index, CD 8 voted for Republicans 13 percent more than the national average.
Given this heavy conservative lean, it is not surprising that we saw such a large Republican primary. However, when national political pundits are talking about a possible blue wave in 2018 maybe it isn’t surprising that we saw a strong Democratic primary as well.
The three major contenders in the Republican primary were Debbie Lesko, Phil Lovas, and Steve Montenegro.
Debbie Lesko represented legislative district 21 in the Arizona Senate until January 8, 2018. She ran a relatively traditional Republican campaign. Her campaign website focused on standard Republican policies, such as building a border wall, wanting to cut the national debt, and striking a very pro-Second Amendment stance. Lesko touts that she has “consistently been endorsed by the NRA and I am a member of both the NRA and Arizona Citizens Defense League.”
Lesko’s campaign came under fire in the final week before the primary election when allegations of campaign finance irregularities surfaced.
“Debbie Lesko last month steered $50,000 from her state Senate campaign to a federal political-action committee that has supported her in the West Valley race, ” according to AZ Central.
Although Lesko maintains that her campaign’s actions were legal, Phil Lovas filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission and the Arizona Attorney General’s office.
“This is an illegal money-laundering scheme,” he said. “They’re clearly in violation of the law. They knew 70 percent of the vote would be in by the time this comes out. … I think it’s clear that there’s coordination.”
Phil Lovas, a former member of the Arizona House of Representatives, was not without controversy too. Lovas was caught on camera campaigning near a polling location in Peoria on election day. ABC 15 said that as of that morning no complaints were made, but the move was clearly in violation of the law which prohibits campaigning within 75 feet of a polling location.
In the end it was Steve Montenegro who won the prize for worst controversy. The former State Senator and married minister allegedly exchanged inappropriate text messages and nude photos with a legislative staffer.
“Montenegro initially denied reports about the texts, shared with multiple media outlets in the state, calling it ‘false tabloid trash,’” reported Politico. “He admitted later last week that he exchanged salacious text messages with the legislative staffer over several months, including a topless photo from the woman, later identified as Stephanie Holford. An attorney representing Holford said that she sent multiple nude photos to the Republican candidate, along with explicit discussions over Snapchat.”
In some polls leading up to the election, Montenegro and Lesko were essentially tied. By election day it was clear how far Montenegro’s rising star had fallen after he came in third behind Phil Lovas.
Had Montenegro won the primary, the Republican party may have found itself in a similar situation to that which played out last year in Alabama. While the allegations against Montenegro are much less serious than those levied against Roy Moore, it nevertheless could have led to a situation where the Democratic candidate could eke out a narrow win.
The special election for the open seat in CD 8 is scheduled for April 24. Debbie Lesko will face Democratic candidate Hiral Tipirneni. Lesko is favored to win but as we have seen with other special elections around the country, Republican candidates can no longer be as sure of victory as they were in the past.