Candidates For Arizona's 8th Congressional District Make Their Cases In Shortened Cycle

By Bret Jaspers
Published: Tuesday, February 20, 2018 - 8:39am
Updated: Tuesday, February 20, 2018 - 12:19pm

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The upcoming special primary election in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District has several well-known Republican candidates, and it’s a heavily Republican seat. While there are 12 GOP candidates running in that party's primary, two Democrats are competing for a spot in the general election in April. Hard-liner Trent Franks was the representative until he resigned in December.

12 GOP Candidates, Well-Known And Obscure, Compete For Votes

AZ08 signs
(Photo by Bret Jaspers - KJZZ)
Twelve Republican candidates are vying for the seat, which has been open since Trent Franks resigned in December.

No one would accuse Debbie Lesko of being unprepared.

“I have zip ties, gloves, wire snippers,” she said on a recent Wednesday, surveying the contents of her trunk. “And I also have these 'Endorsed by Jan Brewer' stickers, so when I see a sign that doesn’t have one, I just stop.”

Lesko is a former state senator and was a state representative before that. She’s used to campaigning, but in the past it’s been more leisurely.

map of Arizona
A map of the 8th Congressional District boundaries in Maricopa County.

“When I put out the mailer, in the past I’ve had months to like review it, OK it, tweak it,” she said. “Now it’s like, you give me a draft of the mailer and I’m just like ‘OK,’ because we just don’t have a lot of time.”

A week from Tuesday is the primary election to replace Trent Franks in Congress. In a bizarre series of events, Franks resigned in December after sexual harassment claims led to a House Ethics investigation. All of a sudden, there was an open seat. A rush of candidates jumped in. Twelve Republicans and two Democrats are running.

Lesko has a leg up in much of the district due to her time representing a portion of the district in the Arizona Legislature. She highlights her work at the statehouse on public safety pension reform.

“You need to listen to people, see what’s important to them, talk to people, respect people,” she said when asked how to reach a compromise. “Ultimately, I think if you do those things, people will respect you back, and you can get things done.”

But is President Donald Trump’s language, which many people would call disrespectful, a barrier to getting things done in Washington, D.C.?

“You know, it’s hard for me to know,” Lesko said. “President Trump has a different style of talking, and it’s not the way that I personally talk. But he is getting things done, and that works for him, and he got elected.”

In terms of getting things done, President Trump and Republicans have cut taxes, installed conservative judges and rolled back regulations. Still to be seen is whether he can get a bipartisan deal on immigration. Members of both parties would need to agree on any large-scale changes.

“You need to listen to people, see what’s important to them, talk to people, respect people."
— Debbie Lesko

Stricter border security is something a lot of Republicans in the district want. That was clear at a State of the Union watching party thrown by another candidate, Phil Lovas, at a Peoria movie theater.

To rouse the crowd, Lovas, a former state Representative, harkened back to the 2016 campaign. “This is the closest we’re gonna get to a Trump rally right now, so I have one question for you: Are you ready to make America great again?”

The crowd of voters and activists from inside and outside the district roared.

TOP: Debbie Lesko with voter Jerry McNelly and campaign volunteers in Sun City. LEFT: Christopher Sylvester had planned on challenging Trent Franks in 2018. RIGHT: Phil Lovas is a former state representative and former official in the Small Business Administration. (Photos by Bret Jaspers - KJZZ)

Terri Lawless of Peoria supports Lovas in the race. She thinks he’ll deliver tougher border security.

“I’m all about the American people. Not illegals,” she said. “You find your own way into our country, the right way, you are more than welcome.”

Lovas’s calling card is that he backed Trump early, chaired Trump’s campaign in Arizona and got a job in the new administration. Like Lesko, he’s giving people his personal phone number.

On immigration, he wants a border wall more than anything else. He’s also talking about term limits. “I would certainly support something that would be a two-term limit in the Senate and three terms in the House, you know, four terms in the House,” he said. “Something along those lines.”

Lovas, Lesko and another former state senator, Steve Montenegro, have spent thousands of dollars on television ads.

Arizona Sen. Steve Montenegro
(Photo by Paul Atkinson - KJZZ)
Arizona Sen. Steve Montenegro

According to recent financial reports filed with the Federal Elections Commission, Montenegro has raised over $230,000 and spent about $130,000. Lesko has raised almost $200,000 and spent about half. SuperPACS in support and opposition to both candidates are spending significant money.

Lovas has raised over $270,000 and spent almost $192,000.

Montenegro and former Corporation Commissioner Bob Stump didn’t return emails seeking an interview.

MORE: 5 Arizona GOP Candidates Vying To Replace Franks Debate

There are eight other Republicans running — candidates like Christopher Sylvester, who don’t have the same kind of following. To get his name out there, Sylvester heads to retail spots after work to hand out his card.

“I was wondering if you would take my card and keep me on your radar screen,” he said to a passing shopper on a recent evening. “I’m running to make a different on Capitol Hill.”

The voter asked if Litchfield Park was in the district. It is. He took the card, said he’d look up the race, and wished Sylvester good luck.

Sylvester, a 24-year Navy vet, is running a campaign with little to no money and even less name recognition. He emblazoned his Chevy with his campaign art — a “driving billboard.” It’s frustrating to him that the media and established forums have focused on candidates who’ve held office in the past.

Another challenge: when he gathered his signatures, people used President Trump as a kind of litmus test, either way.

“It was crazy. You had to be the right shade of red for someone to sign your petition," Sylvester said.

Sylvester painted his truck with campaign art, making him a "driving billboard."
(Photo by Bret Jaspers - KJZZ)
Sylvester painted his truck with campaign art, making him a "driving billboard."

Sylvester isn’t as red as the major candidates. The national debt’s a big problem for him, but he thinks efficiencies can be found in military spending, which hardliners rarely question. He wants to reverse the acrimony in Congress, and get people more involved in their government.

On this night Sylvester ran into Steven Garcia, who had installed solar panels on his house. As Garcia’s young daughter watched a video, he told Sylvester he’s concerned about the national debt. He wants a representative who’s socially liberal and fiscally conservative.

“Republicans keep on saying that they want, you know, less debt, less spending, but yet when it comes down to it, it doesn’t really seem like it’s that way,” he said.

Garcia will have a lot of chances to weigh in. The primary is Feb. 27. The general election is April 24. Then there’s another election, the regular cycle, later this year.

Sylvester had planned on challenging Franks anyway in that one. August, he said, is where it’s at.

Democrats Try To Seize The Moment

Hiral Tipirneni (r) with campaign staff and volunteers
(Photo by Bret Jaspers - KJZZ)
Hiral Tipirneni (right) with campaign staff and volunteers.

In El Mirage last Saturday, Hiral Tipirneni went door to door visiting Democrats and independents. In the brief time she had with people, she ran through her platform: expanding health care coverage, improving public education, and boosting the West Valley economy.

“Does that sound like a platform you’d want to support?”

Tipirneni, a physician new to politics, is hoping for a long shot: that Arizona's very conservative 8th Congressional District will flip.

The upcoming special primary election has several well-known Republican candidates, and the voter registration numbers show a heavily Republican seat. Hard-liner Trent Franks was the representative until he resigned in December.

Hiral Tipirneni
(Photo by Bret Jaspers - KJZZ)
Hiral Tipirneni, a physician, is new to politics.

Tipirneni’s response to skepticism is to point out that Trent Franks didn’t face a Democratic challenger here in the last two election cycles. She also brings up the angry voters turning out across the country.

One voter she met, Veronica Perez, is a registered Democrat but said she doesn’t care about party. Perez votes for the candidate who knows right from wrong, a metric President Donald Trump fails, in her mind.

Perez is also upset about the new tax law. “You know it’s plainly for the rich,” she said. “Just plain read it.”

The overwhelming benefit of the law does go to the upper end of the income ladder. It does contain some middle-class tax cuts, although those expire. Republicans insist corporate tax cuts will lead to better wages for workers. There is also new polling that shows the law is gaining in popularity.

A populist message railing against the wealthy is the tack another Democrat is taking, Brianna Westbrook.

“If you want somebody that’s not going to be influenced by money, that is me,” she said in a debate at the Arizona Republic last month. “As you’ve saw over the last year, I haven’t been holding fundraisers, I’ve been investing in people. I’m running to be a public servant. Not to my highest donor.”

Brianna Westbrook
(Photo by BWestbrookAZ8 - Twitter)
Brianna Westbrook, a political activist from Peoria, is also running in AZ08's Democratic race.

Westbrook didn’t reply to messages seeking an interview.

Since last July, Tipirneni’s raised over $300,000. She’s spent about $200,000. Westbrook has raised almost $35,000 and spent about $16,000.

The two candidates broadly agree on a lot of the issues, and both say they want to work with Republicans to reach solutions. Tipirneni believes her experience as a doctor will serve her when looking for solutions, even when lawmakers have deep disagreements and obstruction is often the goal.

“You have to start somewhere, right? And I’m one more voice of common sense, and of solutions, and of focusing on making progress,” she said. “And I think you have to bring that sort of mindset to D.C.”

Even if voters like what Tipirneni or Westbrook are saying, turning out sympathetic voters will be a tremendous challenge in the general election.

Republicans are about 41 percent of the active, registered voters in Arizona's 8th Congressional District. Democrats number about 24 percent.

There’s a sizeable group of unaffiliated voters, but those tend to mirror the party registration breakdown, according to Catherine Alonzo of Javelina, a firm that works on progressive and Democratic campaigns. Even with the long odds, Alonzo does not think the effort in CD8 is wasted time or money.

“I'm one more voice of common sense, and of solutions, and of focusing on making progress.”
— Hiral Tipirneni

“The Democrats running in this race, if they’re not successful, have learned things and built their name ID and built their donor bases for future races,” she said. “You’re developing the teams, the staffs, the consultants. You’re building a base of knowledge in the district. You’re also really shaping the discourse.”

After running through the dates and logistics of casting a ballot, Tipirneni asked Perez one final question.

“Would I be able to count on your vote?”

“Yes, you will,” Perez said.

One connection made. Many more to go before the primary next Tuesday.

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Democrats Try To Seize The Moment In AZ08