PHOENIX (AP) — A former Arizona state senator easily outpaced another candidate embroiled in a sexting scandal and 10 other Republicans to win Tuesday’s primary to replace a U.S. congressman who quit amid charges of sexual misconduct.
Former state Sen. Debbie Lesko becomes the immediate favorite in the heavily Republican 8th Congressional District to replace former U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, also a Republican.
Franks, who held the House seat since 2003, acknowledged he had discussed surrogacy with two female staffers. A former aide told The Associated Press that he pressed her to carry his child as a surrogate and offered her $5 million. He resigned in December.
Lesko will face Democratic nominee Hiral Tipirneni, a political newcomer, in an April 24 special election to represent the western Phoenix suburbs.
The race had thought to have been a close one between Lesko and former state Sen. Steve Montenegro, a tea party favorite backed by Franks. But Montenegro acknowledged last week that a former Senate aide had sent him an unsolicited topless photo in a text. The married Christian minister said he became too close to the woman, but “never had inappropriate relationship with her or anyone else.” She said she sent him multiple photos and they “engaged in sexual conversations about those pictures.”
Corinne Clark, a retail worker from Surprise, Arizona, said she regretted casting her ballot for Montenegro in early voting, before the allegations about him surfaced.
“Whether it’s true or not is hard to know,” Clark said. “But my number one reason for voting for him was because he has Christian values, and it makes me mad that this has come up afterward.”
In the last week of the election, allegations also surfaced against Lesko concerning campaign finance irregularities.
Lesko denied that transferring $50,000 from her state campaign fund was illegal. She sent the money to an independent group that spent the cash backing her congressional bid.
Most Arizona voters vote by mail-in ballots, many of which were sent before news broke concerning Montenegro’s sexting scandal and Lesko’s campaign finance irregularities.
Lesko had 36 percent of the vote while Montenegro had only 24 percent, early returns showed.
“Wow!” Lesko exclaimed when one of her campaign workers told her that Montenegro was conceding. “I’m so excited because it looks like I’m winning tonight.”
“I’m very grateful to everyone who has helped me on this campaign and now I’m looking forward to the general election and then getting to Washington to get things done for the people in my district,” Lesko added, grinning broadly in a brief interview at an election night gathering in the backyard of her Peoria home.
Lesko had support from popular former Gov. Jan Brewer and a host of local mayors and city council members. She helped drive the state’s landmark school voucher program and is touting her border security plan.
The Democratic nominee faces an uphill battle in a district where Republicans dominate. Early primary ballots broke down about 2 to 1 in favor of Republicans.
Walter King, a 69-year-old retiree from Seattle who now lives in Sun City, said he voted for Tipirneni by mail-in ballot, but didn’t expect her to win in April.
“I like to think the state is slowly turning purple,” King said Monday as he sat in his golf cart, a common form of area transportation, with his French bulldog mix Stuart. “But it’s still mostly red.”
Tipirneni said despite the heavy Republican advantage in the district, she sees a path to victory.
“We’ve seen Democratic performance shoot up by huge numbers all across this country,” she said. “East coast, in red areas like Oklahoma and Alabama, we see Democratic engagement and momentum and energy, and there’s no reason that Arizona can’t be next.”
Snow reported from Peoria, Sun City and Goodyear, Arizona.
— This story has been corrected to show the general election is on April 24, not April 27.