Former state Sen. Steve Montenegro is refusing to deny news reports on texts that suggest he had an intimate relationship with a Senate staffer.
Montenegro is a frontrunner in the Republican special primary election for Arizona’s 8th Congressional District.
And if he pulls off a win on Feb. 27, some political operatives anticipate the controversy will hound him into the regularly scheduled August primary election.
Texts reviewed and reported on first by 12 News and The Arizona Republic included a topless photo sent to Montenegro by the staffer after they discussed how she could have attended a conference with him in November.
“You should have come,” read the response to the photo sent hours later.
According to the Republic, the number receiving the staffer’s messages has been used by Montenegro in conversations with reporters in the past.
The Arizona Capitol Times has not independently reviewed the messages.
On Wednesday afternoon, the staffer’s attorney, Tom Ryan, said the staffer believes she is the victim of revenge porn. Ryan has advised his client to file a formal report with the state Senate.
On the day former U.S. Rep. Trent Franks resigned the CD8 seat in December, the staffer reportedly had a conversation with Montenegro in which she made him a promise: “Yeah, you would never, ever have to worry about me. So I hope that puts you at some ease,” the Republic reports.
In a statement his campaign released last night, Montenegro neither confirmed nor denied the reports.
In it, Montenegro said he had assumed the “distortions” against him would be limited to his votes and positions on the issues, and he deemed the reporting on the texts “tabloid trash.”
Beyond on that, he did not acknowledge the specific allegations against him.
“I am blessed with an amazing wife and marriage,” Montenegro wrote. “The media wants to drag us down with just a week to go, but we are not going to dignify this false tabloid trash with any further response.”
The CD8 special primary election will be decided on Tuesday.
In a response to texts from the Capitol Times, Montenegro’s campaign spokesman Constantin Querard said only, “We made our statement last night and that’s all I’ve got for you…”
Cathi Herrod, president of the influential Center for Arizona Policy, on Wednesday called for Montenegro on Twitter to leave the CD8 race.
She said the reports alleged “inappropriate relations” and that Montenegro’s response included no clear denial.
“Absent a clear denial or evidence to the contrary, I call upon him to withdraw from the #az08 race,” Herrod tweeted. “I urge voters to consider other candidates. My personal opinion.”
She later noted she had not endorsed a candidate in the Republican primary race.
Sens. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, and Karen Fann, R-Prescott, joined Herrod’s call on Twitter as did former Gov. Jan Brewer. Each has endorsed former Sen. Debbie Lesko in the primary.
Though Herrod may not be throwing her support behind another candidate, Republican consultant Matthew Benson said her word against Montenegro would have a “sizeable impact.”
He said her call for Montenegro to step aside is evidence that “his base of support is truly splintering around this issue” and that he’s “bleeding support” in its wake.
The key question now is whether the controversy has “irreparably harmed his ability to represent that district,” Benson said.
If Montenegro chooses not to withdraw from the primary election and wins, Benson said he will face “a parade” of Republican challengers come the regularly scheduled primary that would determine whether he keeps the seat.
And by then, his opponents will have had the time to make the race competitive again.
“People are going to be out for him,” Benson said. “He’s going to be viewed as exceptionally vulnerable in that Republican primary, and that assumes he can hang on in this go around.”
Trent Franks resigned the CD8 seat in December after allegedly asking female staffers to carry his child through surrogacy.
Following his resignation, the Center for Arizona Policy released a statement asking that recipients “simply pray for all of those affected by the circumstances of his resignation,” including former staffers as well as Franks and his family.
“Congressman Franks’ resignation may represent the first time you have considered surrogacy and its implications,” the statement went on. “My heart breaks for those who struggle with infertility and the loss of children.”
The statement made no mention of the specific allegations against Franks.
Despite his own scandal, consultants have said his endorsement helped Montenegro more than it hurt him and speculated Franks could have survived a reelection bid had he not resigned.
But Benson said that’s because Franks had years to serve the district and build support.
Montenegro was comparatively new to many CD8 voters, and while he may have done enough to win a seat at the state level, Congress is a “different kettle of fish.”
“Even Trent Franks, as popular as he was and as long as he served in that district, he obviously decided that he had to step aside.” Benson said.