Lesko, Tipirneni win special primary elections to replace Trent Franks

Feb 27, 2018, 10:01 PM | Updated: 11:05 pm

(AP and Facebook photos)...

(AP and Facebook photos)

(AP and Facebook photos)

PHOENIX — Former Arizona State Sen. Debbie Lesko and Dr. Hiral Tipirneni were elected to their respective party’s seats in the race to replace former U.S. Rep. Trent Franks on Tuesday.

Lesko, who was recently embroiled in a scandal regarding the transfer of funds from her state campaign committee for the primary contest, will represent the Republican Party in the April 24 general election, while Tipirneni will do the same for the Democrats.

Despite the scandal, Lesko still pulled ahead of 11 other Republican candidates vying for the Congressional District 8 seat, taking home 36 percent of the vote.

Former state Sen. Steve Montenegro and former state House member Phil Lovas followed shortly behind in the Republican race, with 24 and 23 percent of the vote, respectively.

Lesko told KTAR News 92.3 FM that she would fight to secure the border, decrease regulations, improve the economy and get the federal budget in order if she was elected into office.

“Definitely want to make sure that we have military defense increased and that we protect Luke Air Force Base,” she said. “Very important for Congressional District 8.”

Montenegro had privately conceded the race around 9 p.m. and thanked his supporters, but had not released a public statement.

Montenegro told supporters at a Goodyear, Arizona, sports bar that the results fell short of what they hoped but that their “shared commitment to this country” will lead to a Republican general election victory in April.

The Republican primary was not called in Lesko’s favor until around 10 p.m.

In a tweet, Lovas conceded the election, thanking his supporters and saying he looked “forward to continuing to work to advance Conservative principles & solutions in the West Valley.”

Tipirneni only had one other opponent in her race for the Democratic Party seat — Brianna Westbrook — but took an early lead and eventually ended up with 59 percent of the vote. She took home more than 6,200 votes over her opponent.

Tipirneni told KTAR News 92.3 FM that she, as an emergency room doctor and cancer research advocate, would prioritize health care for families in the district if she was elected as a U.S. representative.

“As a talk to families…that is routinely No. 1 on their list of concerns,” she said, adding that she has a “real good idea” and a “detailed plan” on how to address them.

While Franks’ seat has a long history being elected to Republicans, Tipirneni said she is confident that she has a chance to win in April.

“There’s a big Democratic movement across the U.S. and there’s no reason why Arizona can’t be next,” she said.

If Tipirneni wins in April, it would be the first time a Democrat won that seat in more than 35 years.

Westbrook also vowed to stay in “Arizona politics for the long haul” in a Tuesday night tweet. “We are far from finished regardless of tonight’s outcome because I’m here to stay.”

Thousands of voters showed up to the polls on Tuesday, despite the cold and rainy weather.

According to the Arizona Secretary of State’s office, 102,803 ballots were cast. About 100,000 early ballots were counted by mid-afternoon, said spokesman Matt Roberts.

In total, more than 22 percent of eligible voters participated in the primary election.

Lesko had the support of former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. Tipirneni, an emergency-room physician, also had the support of another Arizona heavyweight: Former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords.

In a speech after the polls closed, Lesko thanked her supporters. “This is a team effort and I am so thankful, I am so blessed,” she said. “And wow, this is sweet.”

But the election started long before polls opened at 6 a.m. on Tuesday: According to Garrett Archer, the assistant director of elections for Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan, 102,000 early voting ballots were received.

Valley political analyst Stan Barnes told KTAR News 92.3 FM that he is confident that Lesko will take over for Franks in April, saying she “could start picking out the drapes in her office, because barring any ‘Black Swan’ event, she’s going to be the next congresswoman from Arizona.”

Barnes said Tipirneni would have to have an enormous change in voting power to win the general election in such a Republican-heavy district.

The state of the special primary election

Tuesday’s race was determined back in December, shortly after Franks resigned amid allegations that he offered millions of dollars to at least one staffer to be his surrogate. It was also determined that he had surrogacy discussions with several staffers.

Despite the resignation, Franks said he “never physically intimidated, coerced, or had, or attempted to have, any sexual contact with any member of my congressional staff.”

But Politico reported shortly after the Arizona congressman announced his resignation that the aides were “concerned that Franks was asking to have sexual relations with them” and that he “tried to persuade a female aide that they were in love.”

Franks also publicly backed Montenegro, the other favorite for the Republican Party’s seat, shortly after the former Arizona state senator announced his run in December.

Montenegro has been no stranger to scandals of his own: He acknowledged last week that a former Senate aide had sent him an unsolicited topless photo in a text. He said he became too close to the woman, but “never had inappropriate relationship with her or anyone else.”

Meanwhile, Lesko denied charges by Montenegro and others that her transfer of $50,000 from her state campaign committee for the primary contest was illegal. Lesko was one of the drivers of the state’s landmark school voucher program and was touting her border security plan.

Lovas had filed complaints with federal election officials and the state attorney general alleging Lesko’s cash transfers were illegal.

Lovas was also caught campaigning within a restricted limit at a polling location on Tuesday. Brenden Dilley, another candidate for the U.S. House seat, said he filed a formal complaint with Reagan’s office.

Matt Roberts, a spokesman for the office, said the complaint was referred to the attorney general’s office.

Voters speak out over scandals, allegations

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.”

Dion Munoz, a 70-year-old retired aircraft mechanic from Long Island, New York, now living in Sun City, said Monday he voted for Lesko via mail-in ballot because “I didn’t get good vibes about Montenegro.”

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.”

KTAR News’ Ali Vetnar and Ashley Flood and The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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Lesko, Tipirneni win special primary elections to replace Trent Franks