Lesko, Tipernini win hotly contested District 8 congressional primary

GOP congressional hopeful Debbie Lesko gets in some last-minute campaigning outside the 75-foot canvassing line at the polling place at St. Helen’s Catholic Church in Glendale on Tuesday. (Photo by Jesse Stawnyczy/Cronkite News)

Voters in Arizona’s District 8 special election had more than 50 polling locations they could visit in the West Valley, including this one at St. Helen’s Catholic Church in Glendale. (Photo by Jesse Stawnyczy/Cronkite News)

With more than 100,000 early ballots cast, traffic was slow Tuesday at polls like this one at Worship and Word Church on Grand Avenue in Peoria where a poll worker looks out the door. (Photo by Jesse Stawnyczy/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Former state Sen. Debbie Lesko had a commanding lead over a crowded Republican field in the hotly contested special election to replace former Rep. Trent Franks, R-Glendale, according to early returns Tuesday from the Secretary of State’s office.

The unofficial returns also gave Democrat Hiral Tipirneni a comfortable lead in the Democratic primary, setting up an April 24 special election between the two women if the results hold. All of the leading challengers had conceded by late Tuesday evening.

While voters went to the polls Tuesday, the outcome may already have been determined, with more than 101,000 early ballots sent in before Election Day. The voting capped a hectic campaign that drew a crowded field for a Republican race that blew up last week in accusations and counter-accusations between the leading candidates.

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Analysts said the district leans to older voters who are more likely politically active and engaged in the special election.

“For this particular district, you have a disproportionate amount of senior voters, so people who still read newspapers and watch local broadcasts,” said Jason Rose, a Republican political consultant.

“Because of that, there is a high chance that the craziness of the past couple of weeks is going to increase turn out beyond what we were expecting,” Rose said.

Even though she called the special election “an annoyance,” Cheryl Bohl still came out to the Glendale Christian Church to cast a ballot Tuesday.

“I did my research, I know who I did not want to replace him (Franks), so I voted for the person who I felt should get my support if they win,” Bohl said.

Early voting in the 8th District primary began Jan. 31 and the Maricopa County Recorders Office said it had received 101,470 early ballots before polls opened at 6 a.m.

By 10:30 a.m., 1,986 ballots or provisional ballots had been collected at polling places.

“It’s been pretty slow, but I like meeting the folks I’ve met,” Lesko said she greeted voters outside the polling place at St. Helen’s Catholic Church in Glendale earlier in the day.

There are a total of 457,995 registered voters in the district, which leans heavily Republican: 41 percent of voters there are Republicans, compared to 24 percent Democrat and 34 percent independents.

That makeup and the sudden opening of what was thought an unassailable seat – Franks resigned abruptly in December after the House Ethics Committee said it planned to investigate charges that he sexually harassed staffers – lead to a flood of GOP candidates. Lesko called Franks’ resignation “totally an unexpected development.”

There were a dozen Republican candidates running in the primary, with former state lawmakers Lesko, Steve Montenegro and Phil Lovas generally seen as the frontrunners. Bohl said the size of the GOP field “is nuts.”

The special election for the 8th District in Congress drew almost 20 candidates, a field one voter called “nuts.” (Photo by Jesse Stawnyczy/Cronkite News)

But Lesko and Montenegro became embroiled in controversy last week, when news stories surfaced suggesting Montenegro may have had an improper relationship with a staffer and he accused Lesko of improperly funding her congressional campaign from her state campaign account.

With more than 109,000 ballots counted Tuesday, Lesko had just under 36 percent of the GOP vote while Montenegro and Lovas each had just under 24 percent.

Whoever wins the GOP primary will be a heavy favorite to win the general election on April 24, when they will face the winner of the Democratic primary – both of whom are political newcomers – and several write-in candidates.

Tipirneni had 60 percent of the Democratic vote to 40 percent for Brianna Westbrook in last night’s returns. No Democrat has held the 8th District seat since the early 1980s.

The winner in April will have to almost immediately start running for re-election, with a regular primary in August for the November general election.

Matt Roberts, a communications director for Arizona Secretary of State’s office, said elections officials in Maricopa County have seen “a good surge in registered independent votes, but are seeing more registered Republicans than Democrats which is typical for the district.”

Political analysts say the special primary is on track to see “relatively low to average turnout,” which is expected, but note that there could be a bump in turnout because of the recent news regarding the candidates.

David Wells, a political science professor at Arizona State University, said the large number or early ballots it not unusual in a district like the 8th, with older and more politically active constituents.

“Usually around 80-85 percent are early ballots, and those who do show up in the polls today are going to be a small percentage of people who favor voting in person or are just dropping off their ballot,” Wells said.

– Cronkite News reporter Jesse Stawnyczy contributed to this report from Phoenix.

– Cronkite News video by Sydney Isenberg.