PHOENIX – Rep. Trent Frank’s resignation has touched off a scramble among 16 candidates vying to replace him, and analysts say Republicans are almost assured of continuing their three-decade grip on the Congressional District 8 seat.
Candidates had just more than a month to gather at least 665 signatures to compete in the special primary election, which was called last month when Franks abruptly resigned after the House Ethics Committee voted to investigate allegations he sexual harassed a staff member. District 8 covers a portion of the West Valley.
Fourteen candidates are running in the Republican primary on Feb. 27, including two write-in candidates who will not appear on the ballot.
In the Democratic primary, Hiral Tipirneni will face off against Brianna Westbrook.
Two more candidates, one Republican and one Democrat, originally filed to run but either dropped out of the race or were disqualified for a lack of petition signatures.
The special general election is April 24.
Analysts believe more Republicans are running than usual because the seat is all but guaranteed to go to the candidate who wins the primary.
“It’s expected because of the way it went about, because of the fact that it’s a special election,” said political consultant George Khalaf, who polled the district for Data Orbital just after Franks resigned. “If you are a member of that party, you are, more or less, assured victory. It’s essentially a primary battle in your party.”
But the number of business leaders and activists running for Congress in the election is surprisingly high, he said.
“That is a bit more abnormal,” Khalaf said. “There were a number of private citizen who got the signatures.”
The district, comprised of about 768,000 people, leans heavily Republican, said Mike Noble, lead pollster with OH Predictive Insights.
“It is an old demographic and that’s who votes in primaries,” he said. “They’re older and very conservative.”
Because most of the constituents in the district, which includes Sun City, Peoria and Surprise, are older than 65, Noble said immigration was the No. 1 issue among likely voters when his firm polled the district in December, adding that Social Security and veterans benefits also rank as high priorities.
CD 8 heavily favors GOP candidates. Of the 456,000 registered voters, Republicans outnumber Democrats by nearly 70,000.
“This is the Republicans to lose,” Khalaf said. “And a lot, a lot, a lot has to go wrong for the Republicans to lose.”
The last time the West Valley seat was held by a Democrat was in the early 1980s, until Rep. Bob Stump (not related to the Bob Stump in the Race), Franks’ predecessor, changed his party affiliation to Republican in 1983.
“Historically, if you have all three (government) chambers of power, it goes against you,” Khalaf said. “They question is, how much is it (shifting)? A moderate cannot win that district. You can’t go farther right than he (Franks) is. Your other tactic is going moderate, but there aren’t enough moderate voters.”
Noble compared the district to the recent upset in Alabama, where Democrat Doug Jones beat Republican Roy Moore after sexual misconduct allegations against Moore were raised.
“That district is very similar to Alabama,” he said. “The only difference is that whoever wins the primary is not going to have the baggage of Roy Moore.”
One of the potential advantages for candidates who have already held office is that they are able to raise more money in the limited timeframe before the primary, Noble said.
“You base it on fundraising ability,” he said. “People who have won before, people who have been elected by voters.”
Five of the candidates, all Republicans, have previous legislative experience. Former Arizona State Sen. Debbie Lesko, who resigned to run for Franks’ seat, gathered 3,000 signatures to get her name on the ballot.
Former State Sen. Steve Montenegro, former State Rep. Phil Lovas, former Arizona Corporation Commissioner Bob Stump – who is no relation to the former CD 8 congressman – and former Graham County Sheriff Richard Mack also are running.
Stump, Lesko and Montenegro appear to be the frontrunners in the limited polling done to date.
Early polls conducted by Noble’s firm, OH Predictive Insights and Phoenix television station ABC15 give a slight edge to Stump, while a survey from polling firm Data Orbital, conducted by Khalaf, has Debbie Lesko leading the polls, with Stump in second.
Montenegro said he joined the race specifically because Franks asked him to run, and he has received the endorsement of other well known Republicans, including Rick Santorum and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
And if a Republican wins the seat as expected, that person will likely stay in office for some time, Noble said.
“The theory is: you win the primary, you win the general,” he said. “You’re in as long as you want, unless you screw up.”
Early voting for the special primary began Jan. 31.