WASHINGTON – A week before the special primary to fill former Rep. Trent Franks’ seat in Congress, new campaign finance reports show a Democrat has raised and spent more than any candidate in the heavily Republican district.
Federal Election Commission reports show Hiral Tipirneni had raised $306,318.78, well over the $270,491.38 raised by the next-highest fundraiser, Republican Phil Lovas, and more than $270,000 above her nearest Democratic opponent, Brianna Westbrook.
But experts say Tipirneni’s financial lead in the crowded field of 20 is not likely to help her in the April general election, and that the primary race to watch will be the GOP contest between former state legislators Steve Montenegro, Debbie Lesko and Lovas.
Chances of “a Democrat winning that seat is even less than less than zero,” said Republican consultant Jason Rose.
The latest registration numbers from the Secretary of State’s office show 41 percent of voters in the 8th District are Republican, compared to 24 percent Democrats and 34 percent independents.
Tipirneni downplays the registration imbalance, arguing that she is the first strong Democratic candidate in the district in years, and that President Donald Trump’s policies will drive voters toward her. Most voters this election don’t care about the two parties but will “be voting on the issues,” she said Tuesday.
“We have a large percentage of independents in our district,” Tipirneni said. “There’s no doubt there’s a lot of Republicans that feel alienated.”
But Republicans have made steady gains in recent months.
“I don’t think there’s a big grass-roots groundswell” of support for Democrats in the district, said Mike Noble, lead pollster with OH Predictive Insights.
Tipirneni started raising money in July when Franks was her presumed opponent. Republicans scrambled to start up campaigns in December, after Franks suddenly resigned in the face of a House Ethics Committee investigation of alleged sexual harassment of female staffers.
Franks first said he would hold his seat until Jan. 31, but hours later made the resignation immediate – on Dec. 8 – setting the stage for a special election and a last-minute scramble by hopeful Republicans.
Fifteen Republicans have filed for the seat, but only three have raised significant amounts of money: In addition to Lovas, Montenegro reported raising $232,577.49 while Lesko said she had $197,018 by the Feb. 15 FEC filing deadline. After them, it’s a nearly $160,000 drop to the next candidate, Republican Richard Mack.
Lesko trails the other two Republicans but experts say the former state senator has strong name recognition and is racking up endorsements from conservatives like Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, former Gov. Jan Brewer and leaders of the Freedom Caucus in Congress.
Lesko said of the endorsements, her previous hard work in the state legislature and her “love” for constituents, “That is the difference,” in the race.
Rose called Lesko a “very compelling candidate” who he said “has a large footprint in the area … and has a terrific track record.”
Montenegro, another former state senator and Franks’ hand-picked replacement, is trying to move to the right of Lesko and win the primary there.
“Montenegro has certainly tried to shore up the far right, calling upon … Congressman Trent Franks and Sheriff (Joe) Arpaio in kind of an unusual attempt to carve out a certain niche in the field,” Rose said. “I think it’s smart rallying the horsemen of the right.”
Noble said association with Franks, who was driven out of office in a scandal, was a “double-edged sword” for Montenegro’s chances, but that Franks’ conservative reputation in the district is as likely to gain votes for Montenegro as it is to cost him any.
“It helps, it hurts,” Noble said.
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George Khalaf, president of Data Orbital, said because the primary is so packed, Franks’ proven conservative record will outweigh any negatives from the scandal.
If enough voters cared about the scandal, “I think you’d see many more people attack him on that association and it’s been pretty silent so far,” Khalaf said.
Lovas, a former state representative, has the most money but the farthest to climb in terms of name recognition.
Noble said just over half the voters in the district recognized Lovas’ name, making him “relatively unknown,” but that he was still just trailing the other two in his latest tracking polls.
But Khalaf said time is running out for Lovas.
“I still think he’s in the hunt, but I think those chances are slipping away pretty quickly,” he said.
Noble is looking forward to watching the race unfurl in the meantime.
“It’s a fascinating race to watch” he said. “There is nothing more visceral than a competitive GOP primary election in Arizona.”