PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona Republicans who slugged it out in a 12-way primary for an open Congressional seat in a race tinged by sexting and charges of campaign fund irregularities set aside their differences to focus on the general election in April.
Debbie Lesko, a former state senator who won the primary, was already working Wednesday on her general election campaign to replace former U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, who resigned in December under pressure from House Speaker Paul Ryan. Franks acknowledged he discussed surrogacy with two female staffers and one told The Associated Press he offered her $5 million to carry his child.
“I think that the voters knew me,” Lesko said as she prepared to take a call from Ryan. “I’ve been working and volunteering in the northwest valley for the last 20 years.”
The candidates Lesko beat in the 8th Congressional District that spans much of the western Phoenix suburbs have already rallied behind her, even former state Sen. Steve Montenegro, who was dogged in the last part of the race by revelations he received sex-tinged messages and an “unsolicited” topless photo from a legislative aide.
In his Tuesday night concession speech, Montenegro told his supporters that winning the seat for the GOP was essential, that “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!”
Lesko pulled in about 36 percent of the vote, with former state Rep. Phil Lovas and Montenegro each netting 24 percent and the other nine candidates getting single digits. That was a decisive win for Lesko, and the state Republican Party immediately got behind her.
Lesko had been accused of improperly using her state campaign funds to support her congressional bid — a charge she denied.
In the end, the charges against her and the revelations involving Montenegro may have had little impact on the outcome. The state relies heavily on mail-in ballots, most of which had been completed before the last-minute allegations.
As state senator, Lesko worked to overhaul the state’s police and fire system in 2016. She was also the primary backer of last year’s massive school voucher expansion, now on hold after opponents collected enough signatures to put it on the November ballot. She strongly opposes abortion.
“I’m not going to change my values,” she said. “I believe that parents should be able to choose the best education for their child no matter what zip code they live in.”
The Democratic winner, emergency room physician Hiral Tipirneni, said she believes she can defeat Lesko. The district hasn’t elected a Democrat since the early 1980s. Republicans got about two-thirds of the votes in the special election primary.
Her opponent, Brianna Westbrook, tweeted Tuesday night that she’s not giving up her quest for the seat and pointed to her opponent’s heavy spending.
Tipirneni rolled out a <a target=”—blank” href=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dgzsAFCmDXM&feature=youtu.be”>YouTube</a> video to introduce herself to voters, focusing on how to pronounce her name and featuring two of her children.
“I may have a funny name,” she said, “but I’m very serious about making sure every Arizonan has access to quality, affordable health care.”