Lesko Wins GOP Primary in Arizona Race to Replace Rep. Trent Franks

Ex-state senator to face Democrat Hiral Tipirneni in April 24 special election

Former Arizona state Sen. Debbie Lesko has won the Republican primary in the 8th District special election. (Screenshot Debbie Lesko for Congress/YouTube)
Former Arizona state Sen. Debbie Lesko has won the Republican primary in the 8th District special election. (Screenshot Debbie Lesko for Congress/YouTube)
Posted February 28, 2018 at 12:02am

Former Republican state Sen. Debbie Lesko has won the special election primary in Arizona’s 8th District in the race to replace Rep. Trent Franks, who resigned amid sexual harassment allegations.

With 100 percent of precincts reporting Tuesday night, Lesko finished first with 36 percent of the vote, The Associated Press reported. Her nearest challengers, former state Rep. Phil Lovas and former state Sen. Steve Montenegro, trailed with 24 percent each. Lesko is in a strong position heading into the April 24 general election against Democrat Hiral Tipirneni in a district President Donald Trump carried by 21 points. 

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Solid Republican.

The final days of the GOP primary were mired with negative headlines for Republicans. 

Lesko faced allegations of violating campaign finance rules. Lovas, the co-chairman of the Trump campaign in Arizona, accused her of illegally funneling her state campaign funds to a supportive super PAC. Lesko said her contribution was legal and her campaign did not coordinate with the outside group. She also threatened to sue Lovas.

Lesko was the only woman running in the crowded field of Republicans to replace Franks, who resigned in December amid allegations that he had discussed surrogacy with two female employees, and offered one $5 million to carry his child. Lesko was endorsed by former Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, the House Freedom Caucus, and 5th District Republican Rep. Andy Biggs.

Montenegro and Lesko appeared tied in polling in the weeks leading up to the primary, so it’s possible Montenegro lost supporters following recent allegations of an improper relationship with a legislative staffer.

A local NBC affiliate reported that Montenegro, a married minister, had received topless pictures from the staffer when he was serving in the state Senate. He acknowledged receiving nude images from the staffer, but insisted in an interview with the Washington Examiner that he did not solicit them, and he did not have a relationship with her.

Franks had endorsed Montenegro, who worked as his district staffer. Montenegro also had the backing of Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, and Joe Arpaio, the controversial former sheriff of Maricopa County and a candidate for Senate this year.

Democrats have acknowledged that Tipirneni, an emergency room physician, would have an uphill climb to win the safe Republican district. Tipirneni defeated LGBT activist Brianna Westbrook, 60 percent to 40 percent, in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.