FILE - In this March 4, 2015 file photo, Arizona House Majority Leader Steve Montenegro, R-Avondale, speaks during a legislative session at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix. A special election to replace a Republican congressman from Arizona who resigned amid sexual misconduct allegations has turned into a slugfest among GOP candidates hoping to fill former U.S. Rep. Trent Franks' seat. The contest includes admissions by Montenegro, that he received sex-tinged messages from a state Senate staffer and accusations former state Sen. Debbie Lesko improperly tapped her state campaign funds to support her effort. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

Sex, campaign funding scandals dog US House race in Arizona

February 27, 2018 - 2:17 am

PHOENIX (AP) — Sex-related and campaign funding allegations involving several top candidates have captured much of the attention in the Republican primary to replace a U.S. congressman from Arizona who quit amid charges of sexual misconduct last year.

Because the state relies heavily on mail-in ballots completed before the revelations against two of the lead contenders surfaced, it's unknown how much of an impact they will have on Tuesday's special contest to replace Rep. Trent Franks in the 8th Congressional District.

Most voters interviewed Monday in the western Phoenix suburbs covered by the district said they had already cast ballots in early voting before the latest allegations emerged.

A dozen candidates are running in the Republican primary. Two Democrats are seeking their party's nomination, hoping for a longshot win in the April 27 general election.

Still, Christian Cruz, a 21-year-old retail store employee in the suburb of Peoria, said Monday he was unfamiliar with the scandals and planned to vote at his local polling station after consulting with his grandparents. "They read the newspapers and watch a lot of TV news so I trust their opinions," he said.

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.

The top favorites emerging in the GOP race to replace him are former state Sen. Steve Montenegro, a Tea Party favorite backed by Franks, and former state Sen. Debbie Lesko, backed by former Gov. Jan Brewer.

Montenegro, a married father and Christian minister, acknowledged last week that a former Senate aide had sent him texts and an unsolicited topless photo. He said he became too close to the woman, but he "never had inappropriate relationship with her or anyone else."

Meanwhile, Lesko has 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 is touting her border security plan.

Another primary candidate, former state House member Phil Lovas, has filed complaints with federal election officials and the state attorney general alleging Lesko's cash transfers were illegal.

Paul Bentz, a researcher and strategist at the Phoenix-based political consulting firm High Ground, said he wouldn't rule out a surprise win by Lovas, "but I think it really does come down to Montenegro versus Lesko."

The other Republican candidates include former state lawmaker and utility regulation commission member Bob Stump and radio host Clair Van Steenwyk, who twice challenged Franks.

The Democrats, Dr. Hiral Tipirneni and Brianna Westbrook, are political newcomers. Tipirneni is an emergency-room physician who is backed by former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords.

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 win.

"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."

Experts say either Democrat would have a daunting task in the general election, even if Montenegro wins and is still dogged by the sex-talk scandal.

Bentz said: "It would take a Herculean effort for a Democrat to win."

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Snow reported from Sun City, Arizona.

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