In the final week running up to the special primary election in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District, the political world pondered how suggestive text messages exchanged between former state Sen. Steve Montenegro and a Senate staffer would impact the Republican nomination.
Montenegro claimed the revelation of those conversations was an effort to sabotage his political career by his former legislative colleague, Debbie Lesko. But if the goal of those involved in bringing the messages to light was to thwart Montenegro, they need not have tried so hard.
Lesko, a former state senator, won the Republican special primary election to replace ex-U.S. Rep. Trent Franks on February 27.
She emerged with a 12-percentage point lead after the first wave of results an hour after the polls closed, indicating voters were on her side even before the messages.
Lesko claimed 23,621 early votes, or 36 percent, while Montenegro lagged behind with 15,884 votes, or 24 percent. And Lesko’s lead never diminished. She won with an 11-point advantage, according to unofficial results.
Of the roughly 67,000 early ballots cast in the CD8 GOP primary, only about 5,000 were cast after the Montenegro news broke on February 20.
Early voting began on January 31, and February 21 was the last day to mail in early ballots.
The spectacle may have captivated the Capitol, but it appears to have had no material influence on the primary result.
At most, it may have served to push Montenegro from second to third place. Former state Rep. Phil Lovas led Montenegro by 44 votes by the last count on the night of the election, moving Lovas into second place.
Republican consultant Ryan O’Daniel said that was the only real effect the scandal had on the race – it changed the margins, not the final outcome.
“I think he would have finished second if the texting scandal hadn’t broke. I just never really got the impression that he had the same kind of appeal with those hard primary voters that Lesko did,” O’Daniel said.
And consultant George Khalaf said the scandal had no effect.
“It’s clear that voters had made up their minds long before this broke,” he said.
But even if the motivation behind exposing the messages was political – seeking to keep Montenegro out of Congress – GOP consultant Matthew Benson said that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a real issue worthy of attention.
“Nobody’s alleging that this was entirely fabricated,” he said. “People have different perspectives on what happened and who’s to blame and who should share more of the culpability, but there’s no question that some sort of inappropriate behavior transpired.”
In the wake of this scandal and allegations of sexual harassment that led to the ouster of former Rep. Don Shooter in January, a bipartisan, bicameral committee will be tasked with creating a code of conduct to govern the Legislature.
“This wasn’t just politics as usual,” Benson said of Montenegro. “This was a real issue and certainly one that was ripe to explode in this kind of climate that we live in in 2018.”
Montenegro is not the first public figure to face consequences in the age of Me Too and a heightened awareness of sexual misconduct nationally.
But in many cases across the country in which inappropriate or even illegal behavior was exposed, victims were willing come forward with their stories.
Tom Ryan, the attorney for the woman on the other side of the Montenegro texts, Stephanie Holford, rejected any comparison between the stories emerging out of the Me Too movement and his client’s experience. He said what has happened to Holford was quite the opposite.
“At the time this was all going on, it was consensual between the two people,” he said. “Here’s the bigger problem… it unevens the playing field for all other Senate staffers.”
And Holford may have been the victim of revenge porn – her ex-boyfriend, Kent Lyons, took the messages and a nude photo from Holford’s computer at her home and shared them with news outlets without her knowledge or consent, Ryan said.
At a press conference on February 22, Ryan said Lyons brought Holford to his office for their initial meetings, presenting her as a “whistleblower.” But Ryan quickly realized that wasn’t the case – Holford told him she was not there willingly, he said, and she wanted no part in making the affair public.
Lesko will face off against Democratic nominee Hiral Tiperneni in the April 24 special general election.
Yellow Sheet Editor Jeremy Duda contributed to this report.