Former State Sen. Debbie Lesko prevailed on Tuesday in the Republican special election primary to succeed outgoing Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) in Arizona’s 8th congressional district with 35.8% of the vote, beating her nearest challenger, former State Sen. Steve Montenegro, by 11 points.
Lesko had been endorsed by Freedom Caucus leaders Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), as well as Arizona Caucus member Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) and the Caucus’s political arm, the House Freedom Fund. She was known for her fiscally conservative record during her tenure in the Arizona state legislature, but was criticized by opponents for directing funds between three different campaign committees, with Montenegro describing it as “money laundering”.
Montenegro, an immigration hardliner, had received the backing of Franks and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), as well as figures from the nationalist wing of the party such as Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Rep. Steve King (R-IA), and former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ). Despite being the early frontrunner, his campaign faltered after a scandal emerged surrounding his inappropriate text conversations with a female aide, who went on to send him nude photos. This impact of this was amplified by the fact that Franks had announced his resignation from Congress after reports that he had asked female members of staff whether they would consider acting as surrogate mothers for him, which was framed by mainstream media outlets as “harassment”.
Sheriff Richard Mack, a popular figure among libertarians, received a paltry 1.4% of the popular vote, despite support from the Republican Liberty Caucus.
Prominent Tea Party organizations largely stayed out of the primary, recognizing the divide among conservatives living in the district. The Club for Growth stated that it was satisfied with either Lesko or Montenegro.
Lesko will go on to face Democratic candidate Hiral Tipirneni in the April 24 special election. Although this congressional district is traditionally regarded as safe by Republicans, Democrats are expected to invest considerably after their strong showings in 2017 special elections in red states such as Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Georgia, and Montana.