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 FranksArizona New Members 2019 Cook shifts 8 House races toward Dems Freedom Caucus members see openings in leadership 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 TrumpForget the spin: Five unrefuted Mueller Report revelations Lara Trump: Merkel admitting migrants 'one of the worst things that ever happened to Germany' Financial satisfaction hits record high: survey 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 MooreGOP Senate campaign arm hits battleground-state Dems over 'Medicare for All,' Green New Deal The Hill's Morning Report — Category 5 Mueller storm to hit today GOP leaders dead set against Roy Moore in Alabama 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.