After a brief but ugly race, Debbie Lesko has won the Republican nomination in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District.
The Associated Press called the race at 10 p.m., about an hour after former state Sen. Steve Montenegro conceded. Lesko came out ahead as the first results were released, putting her ahead of Montenegro by 12 percentage points.
A sincere thank you to the voters who cast their ballot for me. It is an honor I will always cherish. A similar message of gratitude to all those who volunteered & gave of their time. And congratulations to our winner & everyone who offered themselves as candidates in #az08.
— Steve Montenegro (@SteveMontenegro) February 28, 2018
Montenegro also fell behind former state Rep. Phil Lovas.
On the morning after her win, Lesko told the Arizona Capitol Times that she won by such a wide margin because she has spent years making herself known to the people of CD8. She said she’s made herself easily accessible, handing out a home phone number that hasn’t changed in two decades.
Lesko will now advance to the special general election against Democrat Hiral Tipirneni on April 24.
The predominantly conservative district is expected to easily hand the Republican nominee the Congressional seat over the Democratic challenger.
Democrat Hiral Tiperneni lead Brianna Westbrook by 19 percentage points, a wide enough margin for AP to call the race in her favor more than an hour before the Republican primary was called.
Despite her advantage heading into the general, Lesko said she isn’t taking anything for granted, and she’ll still be working hard to convince voters she’s the right choice.
“I have the same beliefs that I had yesterday,” she said. “My values align with the majority of my constituents’ values. … I’m not going to change.”
GOP pollster George Khalaf of Orbital Data predicted a win for Lesko based on the early numbers.
“Unless the number of ballots dropped off today are massive and Lesko did absolutely horribly in them, looks like she will be the winner in #AZ08 tonight,” he tweeted shortly after the first batch of results came in. “Surprised at the lead between her and second place.”
Phil Lovas initially trailed Montenegro by just 1 percentage point, but Lovas eventually overtook him by fewer than 100 votes.
Lovas gave a conciliatory statement via Twitter.
While the result was not what we had hoped, I am grateful for the support we received from the citizens of #AZ08. A huge thank you to our numerous volunteers and supporters.
I look forward to continuing to work to advance Conservative principles & solutions in the West Valley.
— Phil Lovas (@PhilLovas) February 28, 2018
“While the result was not what we had hoped, I am grateful for the support we received from the citizens of #AZ08,” he tweeted, adding a thank you to his volunteers. “I look forward to continuing to work to advance conservative principles & solutions in the West Valley.”
Former Arizona Corporation Commissioner Bob Stump, meanwhile, came in a distant fourth, dropping from 6 percent to just 5 percent of the vote by the time the race was called in Lesko’s favor.
Twelve Republicans ran in the crowded primary field, but Lesko was among the few candidates believed to have a real chance.
Auto-dial polls put Montenegro within shouting distance of Lesko in the runup to the election, but Montenegro was derailed last week by the revelation that he had carried on intimate conversations via text with a Senate staffer while still in office last year. Among the suggestive messages he received were photos of the woman in “various states of undress,” according to a statement.
Former Gov. Jan Brewer endorsed Lesko as did the influential House Freedom Caucus.
— Jan Brewer (@GovBrewer) February 28, 2018
The money followed as did the attacks on Montenegro’s campaign.
Lesko and Montenegro dominated the conversation, exchanging fire only with each other and essentially ignoring the other candidates.
Independent expenditures followed suit, weighing in on behalf of their favored candidates.
As of Feb. 15, Lesko herself had spent about $70,000 on cable ads, the first of which focused on border security.
She characterized the southern border with Mexico as a “war zone” and presented the “Lesko plan” that mirrored calls from President Trump – more Border Patrol agents, improve technology and a border wall
But that wasn’t good enough for the pro-Montenegro super PAC National Horizon, which teed off on Lesko’s “double talk” on the issue.
The group ran an ad noting that she told The Arizona Republic in December that securing the border “doesn’t necessarily mean a wall.”
“Doesn’t necessarily mean a wall?” the ad’s voiceover said before promoting Montenegro’s stance on the matter.
A mailer continued that same line of attack against Lesko, claiming that “liberal Debbie Lesko” is wrong on border security because she “won’t commit to building a real border wall.”
Lesko and Montenegro also exchanged blows over who had violated the Americans for Tax Reform Taxpayer Protection Pledge – an ATR statement eventually clarified they were both guilty on that front.
But the criticism that could prove most problematic may was not entirely resolved before the primary election was decided.
In a complaint to the Federal Election Commission and the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, Phil Lovas alleged that Lesko broke state and federal campaign finance laws when $50,000 from her state Senate re-election committee was contributed to a super PAC that aided her federal campaign, Conservative Leadership for Arizona.
The super PAC spent about $20,000 on pro-Lesko mailers and about $7,000 on road side signs touting her candidacy. It spent another $21,000 on polling in the CD8 race.
Lesko told the Capitol Times that Lovas’s allegations were “totally and utterly false,” and she was fortunate that “voters didn’t fall for last-minute false accusations” by an opponent.
If Lesko and Conservative Leadership for Arizona coordinated, those expenditures would be considered contributions to her campaign and subject to the federal campaign contribution limit of $2,700.
There is a three-pronged test to determine what constitutes illegal coordination with a campaign, two of which Lesko has met – the communication directly advocates for her election, and was not paid for by someone other than her. Evidence demonstrating she violated the third “conduct prong,” though, has not been provided.
“Everything we did was totally above board,” Lesko said, “and I am expecting a fast resolution to this, that it will be dismissed.”
Lesko has threatened to sue Lovas over the allegations.