Rep. Trent Franks resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment. But that hasn’t stopped him from being a factor in the race for his seat.
Republican strategists say the former congressman is still well-liked among GOP voters in Arizona’s 8th District, which could explain why he hasn’t disappeared from the race to replace him. Franks appeared briefly in an ad for one of the candidates as voters head to the polls next Tuesday in the primary election to replace him.
“This is one of those issues where I feel like the intelligentsia in Washington can’t figure out why this is happening,” Arizona GOP consultant Chris DeRose said.
DeRose, who is not working with any of the candidates, said GOP voters have not rejected Franks, despite the allegations that he repeatedly asked female staffers to carry his child as a surrogate. One of the staffers said Franks offered her $5 million to be a surrogate, according to The Associated Press.
“Prior to that, he’d been building a relationship with that district for 20 years. So people still think very well of him there,” DeRose said. “And so … it was a no-brainer seeking and using Trent Franks’ endorsements.”
The candidate standing next to Franks in the ad, former state Sen. Steve Montenegro, is considered one of the top contenders in the GOP primary. Controversial former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is popular among immigration hard-liners, also appeared in the ad backing Montenegro.
But Montenegro, who is married, could face his own controversy regarding a possible relationship with a former legislative staffer. KPNX, the NBC affiliate in Phoenix, reported Tuesday evening on text messages exchanged between Montenegro and the staffer that included a topless picture she sent him. KPNX said the messages did not indicate any harassment had taken place.
Montenegro was asked on the station's “Sunday Square-Off” program on Feb. 4 whether he could assure voters he has treated staffers with respect and “never engaged in any improper relationships with any of them.”
“Of course, yes,” he replied. His campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday but in a Facebook post he called the reports “tabloid trash.”Watch: Candidates to Watch in Arizona’s Special Election Primaries
Montenegro was considered a top candidate, and it’s not clear if the latest revelation could upend the primary, since more than 70,000 votes have already been cast.
The Franks factor
It’s not surprising to folks in Arizona that Franks would be willing to go on the airwaves for Montenegro. After he decided to step down, Franks asked Montenegro, a former district staffer, to run for his seat and endorsed him. Montenegro defended Franks on “Sunday Square-Off.”
“I wasn’t there,” he said of the allegations. “I’ve known Trent Franks for 15 years and he’s been a stellar congressman.”
Constantin Querard, Montenegro’s consultant, said in a phone interview last week that their polling had Franks’ approval ratings in the upper 50s. He said the news surrounding the allegations came and went fairly quickly, and Franks’ constituents still think he was a good congressman.
But strategists working with other candidates in the race were not as confident about the former lawmaker’s appeal.
“I think Congressman Franks’ endorsement is certainly a double-edged sword,” said Brian Seitchik, a consultant for former state Rep. Phil Lovas, who is also in the GOP race. “Certainly, he has his followers in the district, but other folks are pretty embarrassed or disappointed with his behavior as well.”
Seitchik said he had seen polling that “cuts both ways” on Franks but declined to discuss internal numbers.
Franks’ former colleagues with the House Freedom Caucus are not behind his choice. They endorsed state Sen. Debbie Lesko, the only woman in the race. Montenegro and Lesko are considered the front-runners in the 12-candidate GOP contest.
Lesko’s entire state Senate district is located in the 8th District, and she has also been endorsed by former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and 5th District Republican Rep. Andy Biggs.
Lesko raised $179,000 in the final stretch of the race, according to Federal Election Commission documents. Montenegro raised nearly $233,000.
Both candidates have aired television ads in recent weeks, though they have also had help from outside groups.
Sen. Ted Cruz has endorsed Montenegro. The Texas Republican’s political action committee has spent roughly $124,000 on the race. National Horizon, a super PAC backing Montenegro, has also spent nearly $60,000.
Defend US PAC, a super PAC backed by President Donald Trump supporter Ken Blackwell, has spent $164,000 against Montenegro and on behalf of Lesko.
Several GOP strategists said outside spending, or independent expenditures, could shape the race since candidates have not had time to raise and spend their own money in the compressed campaign.
“Obviously, in a race where not much money has been raised, the IEs matter,” said DeRose, the GOP consultant. “And the IEs may end up making a difference.”
The GOP candidates have been competing over who is most conservative and who would be the best ally to Trump, who carried the district by 21 points in 2016.
Lovas and former state Rep. Bob Stump are also mentioned among the top candidates. Stump, whose given first name is Christopher, sparked some controversy for campaigning as “Bob” Stump — the same first name as a former Arizona congressman who’s no relation.
Lovas, also a onetime state legislator, appears to have tied himself most closely to the president. Even his campaign logo resembles Trump’s from 2016. Lovas co-chaired Trump’s campaign in Arizona.
Seitchik, Lovas’ consultant, declined to say whether his candidate sought an endorsement from Trump. But he said he believed the higher turnout could benefit the former state lawmaker.
A spokesman for the Arizona secretary of state put the estimated turnout for the Tuesday primary, including early votes, at between 110,000 and 115,000, with roughly 70 percent of them for the GOP primary.
As of Friday, nearly 74,000 people have voted early, while officials had previously expected a total turnout of 70,000 to 80,000.
“We think those were folks who were activated and inspired by President’s Trump’s message,” Seitchik said.
Border security and immigration have also been top issues the primary, even though the 8th District is in the Phoenix suburbs and not along the Southern border.
When it comes to issues important to GOP primary voters in the district, “border’s No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3,” Lesko’s spokesman Barrett Marson said.
Lesko’s first campaign ad touted her support for Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, along with funding additional border agents and improved technology.
Democrats will also have a candidate in the special election. (Franks hadn’t faced a Democratic challenger since 2012.) LGBT activist Brianna Westbrook will face Dr. Hiral Tipirneni, who has raised nearly ten times more than her opponent.
Roughly 25 percent of registered voters in the district are Democrats, and one Democratic strategist working in the race said boosting turnout could help the party in the April election. But a Democratic victory is considered a long shot.
So all eyes will be on the Republican primary. With a crowded field and no runoff, strategists estimate the winner could garner as little as one-third of the vote and still win.