Lesko’s retirement starts stampede of high-profile hopefuls in 8th District

Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, at a Trump campaign rally in Phoenix in 2020. Lesko, now in her third full term in Congress, said in October that she would not seek reelection in her GOP-safe district, surprising many observers. (File photo by Reno Del Toro/Cronkite News)

Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, said she has been honored to serve, but that she was stepping away in part to spend more time with her family and in part because “right now, Washington, D.C., is broken, it is hard to get anything done.” (File photo by Reno Del Toro/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Open congressional seats typically draw a crowd of hopefuls, but the crowd lining up to replace outgoing Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, is being described by experts with words like “all-stars,” “fascinating” and “fun.”

The 20 candidates to file paperwork for the seat with the Arizona Secretary of State’s office for the primary or general election so far include two failed statewide GOP candidates, another two who were at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and the former congressman from the district, who resigned amid an ethics probe in 2017.

“Grab your popcorn, pull up your chair because you’re going to be in for a world of fun watching that race … it’s going to be a blast to watch,” said Mike Noble, CEO of Phoenix-based Noble Predictive Insights.

The race got an early boost Friday, when former President Donald Trump endorsed Abe Hamadeh, the failed 2022 GOP nominee for attorney general – giving him a likely edge over the other nine Republicans in the race, many of them heavy hitters with big names and already established track records.

“If Trump were to weigh in on the race, it would put his thumb on the scale of the election,” Paul Bentz, senior vice president of research and strategy at HighGround Inc., said before Trump’s announcement. “It’s likely in a very crowded race like this, that Trump’s endorsement would make the difference.”

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But it’s not just Republicans in the hunt. The race has also inspired eight Democrats, an independent and one Libertarian who may have the highest profile of them all: Jacob Angeli-Chansley, known to many as the QAnon Shaman who became the face of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol in his face paint and horned fur hat.

History aside, analysts give Angeli-Chansley little hope in the district where registered Libertarians make up just 0.8% of voters. Republicans account for 39.8% of registered voters in the district, compared to 25.1% for Democrats and 33.9% for independent voters.

Lesko won the seat in a 2018 special election with 52.6% of the vote and has been reelected by increasingly large margins since, winning 96.5% of the vote last year against a write-in candidate.

Political observers said she could have kept the seat as long as she wanted, but Lesko announced in October that she would not seek reelection to a “broken” Washington. That set off a stampede of candidates for what is considered a safe Republican seat.

Noble said that should make it “one of the most fascinating Republican primaries to watch in the state.”

“It’s going to be, I’d say the most action-packed election because Republican primaries are typically pretty bruising,” he said.

In addition to Hamadeh, the GOP field includes Arizona House Speaker Ben Toma and state Sen. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale – who was also in the crowd on Jan. 6 but did not enter the Capitol. Former Rep. Trent Franks is running for the seat he gave up abruptly in late 2017, when the House Ethics Committee launched a sexual harassment investigation of Franks, who approached female staffers about being a surrogate mother for him and his wife.

But Franks’ name recognition may have waned, experts say, particularly in the face of bids by Blake Masters, the 2022 GOP Senate nominee who lost to Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, and Hamadeh, who narrowly lost his GOP bid for attorney general against Democrat Kris Mayes.

“He (Franks) cannot assume that people know who he is because they’re much more likely to have recall about somebody like Hamadeh or Masters from the national media,” Bentz said.

Bentz said Lesko’s departure has “created a pressure release valve for GOP politicians, where a lot of Republicans were looking for some place to go.” He noted that before they announced for Lesko’s seat, Hamadeh was considering a run for county attorney and Masters – who was also endorsed by Trump in 2022 – was eyeing another Senate bid.

While it is nothing new for Republicans to dominate the district, Noble said the 2024 election could expose fault lines among Make America Great Again voters.

Noble finds it “incredibly fascinating” that Kari Lake, the failed 2022 GOP gubernatorial nominee now running for Senate, has endorsed Hamadeh, while Masters has been endorsed by Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Bullhead City and Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio.

“Before you always had MAGAs running where there’s kind of one ordained … but now you’re seeing these fractions,” Noble said.

Most expect the race to be determined in primary. Kyle Kondik, elections analyst at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said the only hope in the general election is, “If the Republican nominee ends up being very weak, that might open it up to the potential for you know, Democrats to bring an upset there.”

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Bentz and other experts all say that money will “be a very strong indicator of who’s able to be successful in this race.”

“Congressional races are interesting because there tends to be a greater correlation of spending to winning than in, than in other races,” Arizona-based political consultant Jason Rose said.

Most of the big-name candidates have not reported fundraising with the Federal Election Commission because they entered the race after the last FEC reporting deadline. Only Democrat Gregory Whitten and Independent Jeremy Spreitzer filed campaign reports with the FEC, with Whitten raising a $58,136 and Spreitzer raising $11,215.

Rose believes the long list of aspiring candidates will begin to shorten.

“I’ll be surprised if all those people stay in,” Rose said. “That’s a clash of, no matter whether you agree with them or not, of all-stars and only one can win and some of those guys have lost before.”

Whatever the final number of candidates, Noble expects an entertaining campaign.

“It’s got a little bit of everything frankly in this one,” Noble said. “It’s made for reality TV.”

Renee Romo(she/her/hers)
News Broadcast Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Renee Romo plans to graduate in December 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in political science. Romo is a White House Correspondents’ Association Scholar, who has interned with Arizona Education News Service. Romo also writes for PolitiFact.