One Week to Go in Arizona’s Special Election Primary

The GOP winner will likely be the next member of Congress in the 8th District.

Arizona State Rep. Debbie Lesko speaks with a constituent during the meeting of the state committee of the Arizona Republican Party on Jan. 27 in Phoenix.
AP Photo/Matt York
Nia Prater
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Nia Prater
Feb. 19, 2018, 8 p.m.

A couple of former Republican state senators are fighting for the edge with one week to go in the special-election primary for Arizona’s 8th District, which is open for the first time since 2002.

Steve Montenegro and Debbie Lesko have racked up money and big-name endorsements, and both are tied for the lead in the most recent publicly available poll.

The GOP nominee will be the heavy favorite to win the April general election in this solidly Republican territory to fill the remaining eight months of Trent Franks’s term.

An odd set of circumstances led to the seat’s vacancy—Franks resigned soon after it became public that he was accused by a former staffer of offering her $5 million to be a surrogate mother—but the race has played out like many Republican primaries will this cycle.

Twelve Republicans qualified for the Feb. 27 primary ballot. Despite the challengers’ varying biographies—from having well-established careers in Arizona politics to little or no political experience at all—the group’s political views have taken a similar hue: pro-Trump. They’ve all echoed the president’s call for a border wall during debates while attempting to lay claim to being the most antiabortion, pro-tax-cut, and pro-gun-rights candidate.

The front of the pack is rounded out by former state corporation commissioner Bob Stump, who is not related to the longtime 3rd District representative of the same name, and former state Rep. Phil Lovas, who cochaired President Trump’s campaign in the state.

Lovas had raised ($270,000) and spent ($192,000) the most of the candidates by Feb. 7, the close of the pre-primary fundraising period. He began raising money within a week of Franks’s resignation and gave his campaign $40,000 out of pocket.

Montenegro raised $233,000 and spent $131,000 in the nearly two-month period, while Lesko raised $197,000 and spent $97,000. Both ended the period with $101,000 in cash on hand.

Those figures were released Thursday, a couple of weeks after an OH Predictive Insights poll found Lesko and Montenegro tied for the lead with 21 percent apiece, followed by Lovas with 12 percent and Stump with 10 percent.

Meanwhile, the growing list of endorsements for both Lesko and Montenegro features a split among big-name conservatives.

Lesko’s backers include two House Freedom Caucus leaders, Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan, as well as former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. Montenegro has been endorsed by Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Steve King, as well as two controversial local figures: former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Franks.

Matthew Benson, a Republican strategist in the state, sees Franks’s endorsement as beneficial to Montenegro, despite the scandalous conclusion to the former congressman’s tenure.

“I think there’s a lot of thought on the outside that that hurts him,” Benson said. “But people don’t understand—Trent Franks is popular in that district and remains so.”

Trump hasn’t indicated which candidate he supports. Lovas appeared to have the inside track, considering his past appointment in the Trump administration and that he was one of the first members of the Arizona legislature to endorse Trump during the presidential primaries.

But after taking a chance on Roy Moore in Alabama’s recent special election and losing, Trump might be reluctant to tie himself to a candidate trailing in the polls.

“It doesn’t sound like Lovas is within shouting distance of the other two, so it would appear unlikely” that Trump endorses, Benson said earlier this month.

In the meantime, the candidates have mostly aligned themselves with the president and his policies. Even Stump, who had harsh words for Trump in 2016—calling him a “deranged thug” and a “con artist” in an interview with the Arizona Capitol Times—has changed his tune and pared down some of his criticisms of Trump’s energy policies.

While there is plenty of attention on the March 13 special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th District, the predictable outcome has kept Arizona’s 8th District flying under the radar. Trump won the district, which lies west of Phoenix in Maricopa County’s West Valley region, by 21 points over Hillary Clinton, 57 percent to 36 percent.

Still, Democrat Hiral Tipirneni, an emergency-room physician, has raised more than $300,000, including $93,000 in self-financing.

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