GOP dodges bullet in Arizona race to replace Franks

GOP dodges bullet in Arizona race to replace Franks
© Greg Nash
Former Arizona state Sen. Debbie Lesko (R) on Tuesday won the GOP nomination to replace disgraced ex-Rep. Trent FranksHarold (Trent) Trent FranksGOP women’s group endorses challengers in top Senate, House races GOP dodges bullet in Arizona race to replace Franks Real-time data insights have become a powerful political tool MORE (R-Ariz.), allowing national Republicans to avoid a potentially costly special election headache.
Lesko took a little more than a third of the vote in Arizona's low-turnout special election primary. She outlasted Phil Lovas, a former state representative who chaired President TrumpDonald John TrumpPoll: Both parties need to do more on drug prices Senate approves .3 trillion spending bill, sending to Trump White House: Trump will delay steel tariffs for EU, six countries MORE's campaign in Arizona, and Steve Montenegro, a former state senator who came under fire in recent days for sexually tinged text messages he sent to a staffer.
She will face off against physician Hiral Tipirneni, who won the Democratic primary over activist Brianna Westbrook, in the April 24 general election. The 8th District, in the northwest Phoenix suburbs, voted for President Trump by a 20-point margin.
Arizona Republicans said Lesko, who represented a senior-heavy portion of the district, had quietly laid the groundwork for Tuesday's victory over a period of years.
"Lesko has worked harder than anyone else in the race, and not just in the campaign," said Sean Noble, a longtime Arizona Republican strategist. "She is all over her district, has rarely missed an LD meeting and stays engaged in the issues that get the attention of her base. It paid off in spades tonight."
Brett Mecum, a former top aide to Arizona's Republican Senate president, said Lesko's time spent representing the Sun City area in the legislature made her the odds-on favorite.
"She's been the Sun City hometown legislator for years," Mecum said. "She was able to capitalize on the large senior population of the district."
Lesko's win is a significant relief to Arizona and national Republicans.
After Franks quit Congress in December amid allegations that he had sexually harassed several staffers, many observers believed Montenegro, a conservative state senator, would be the front-runner to fill Franks's seat.
But a local television station last week reported that Montenegro — a married father who serves as a pastor at his church — had exchanged flirty text messages with a former aide and that the aide sent Montenegro a topless photo of herself. The Arizona Republic later published the full transcript of the text messages.
Most Arizona Republicans believed the scandal was enough to sink Montenegro. But national Republicans quietly told reporters that even if he did win, Montenegro was no Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreRomney officially files to run for Senate DNC chair: RNC might outraise us but ‘they’re morally bankrupt’ Setting the record straight on charities and political speech MORE, the Alabama Senate candidate who was accused by multiple women of inappropriate sexual behavior, some of them teenagers when he was in his 30s.
Lovas, Trump's former campaign co-chairman, had hoped for an endorsement from the president. That endorsement never came.