PHOENIX (AP) – A former Arizona state senator accused of campaign finance irregularities jumped to an early lead in Tuesday’s Republican primary to replace a U.S. congressman from Arizona who quit amid charges of sexual misconduct.
If former state Sen. Debbie Lesko holds her lead, she becomes the immediate favorite in the heavily Republican 8th Congressional District to replace former U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, also a Republican.
Her closest rival, former state Sen. Steve Montenegro, conceded in an address to supporters.
“While the results are obviously not what we were hoping for, we started this race at 1 percent and came a remarkable distance together,” Montenegro said late Tuesday. “Our shared commitment to this country is what unites us and it is what will lead our party to victory in April and again in November.”
Early votes posted about an hour after polls closed Tuesday evening showed Lesko with 36 percent of the vote and Montenegro trailing with 24 percent. Ten other GOP candidates were trailing.
“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,”she said, grinning broadly in a brief interview at an election night gathering in the backyard of her Peoria home.
“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.
The race was thought to be a close one between Lesko and 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.”
Lesko, meanwhile, denied allegations 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.
Arizona relies heavily on mail-ballots and they were mainly completed before the sex-related and campaign funding revelations surfaced.
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.”
The winner of the Republican primary will face Democratic nominee Hiral Tipirneni, a political newcomer, in an April 24 special election to represent the western Phoenix suburbs.
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 defeat whatever Republican wins the primary.
“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.
Franks, who held the House seat since 2003, resigned in December after acknowledging 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.
Snow reported from Peoria and Goodyear, Arizona.
– This story has been corrected to show the general election is on April 24, not April 27.