Republicans are fretting that a front-runner for an Arizona congressional seat — a married minister involved in a sexting scandal — will pull a Roy Moore and hand the seat to Democrats if he wins Tuesday’s special-election primary.
The seat vacated by former GOP Rep. Trent Franks — who resigned last December over his own sex scandal — should be an easy hold for Republicans.
But a bombshell report of nude photos and text messages exchanged between the candidate, former state Sen. Steve Montenegro, and a legislative staffer — published just a week before the election — has left GOP operatives worried that "it could be Alabama all over again," said Shiree Verdone, who ran Arizona Sen. John McCain's 2010 Senate race.
Before the turmoil, Montenegro had lined up endorsements from Franks and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), whose leadership PAC boosted Montenegro in TV ads. He was tied in the polls with Debbie Lesko, his former colleague in the state Senate — both quit the chamber to run for the seat — when ballots were mailed out at the end of January.
"Deep down, I'm worried because I don't want this to be another Roy Moore situation," Verdone added.
The GOP nominee should coast to victory in the April 24 special election. President Donald Trump won the district, based in the suburbs north and west of Phoenix, by 21 points in 2016. And even if a Democrat defeated Montenegro, the seat would still be up in the general election in November, when Republicans would be heavily favored to win it back.
But the scandal could still "impact the party's perception and brand," said Mike Noble, a GOP pollster in the state. "Montenegro winning — that's a big fear for Republicans right now," he said.
Montenegro initially denied reports about the texts, shared with multiple media outlets in the states, calling it "false tabloid trash." He admitted later last week that he exchanged salacious text messages with the legislative staffer over several months, including a topless photo from the woman, later identified as Stephanie Holford. An attorney representing Holford said that she sent multiple nude photos to the Republican candidate, along with explicit discussions over Snapchat.
But Montenegro told the Washington Examiner that he "did not have any inappropriate relationships with this woman,” insisting that he did not solicit the nude photograph. Outside of press releases and the Examiner interview, Montenegro has largely gone into hiding in the final days before Tuesday's primary.
"As a proven conservative who knows the district's issues and voters, and who delivers the GOP's message of opportunity for all in both English and Spanish, Steve Montenegro would be a fantastic candidate in the general election," said Constantin Querard, Montenegro's general consultant.
Here's why Montenegro is trying to run out the clock: While a sex scandal emerging a week before an election would typically be fatal to a candidate, 75 percent of voters had already mailed in their ballots by the time the story became public, according to an estimate from Garrett Archer, the assistant director of elections at Arizona’s secretary of state's office.
"We're down to the wire, and the big question is: How will this bombshell impact those undecided voters or voters who will vote on Election Day?” Noble said. “But the local media has aggressively been covering this, so they've heard about it, that's for sure."
Hiral Tipirneni, a physician and a member of the board of directors of the Maricopa Health Foundation, is expected to win the Democratic primary, after raising $300,000 for her bid.
"The district is obviously tough, but Trump won it by 21 points, and he also won Alabama by 27 points," said Rodd McLeod, a Democratic strategist who's assisting Tipirneni in her race. "Obviously we're in a year where there's something changing — and if there's a wave election coming, and the Republican nominee is damaged, you could have a really close election."
But Montenegro is not the only Republican candidate weathering some bad press in the final stretch of the special election. Phil Lovas, a Republican candidate who served as the state chairman of Trump’s 2016 campaign, filed a complaint with the FEC against Lesko’s campaign for allegedly steering $50,000 from her state Senate account to a PAC supporting her congressional bid.
“This is an illegal money-laundering scheme," Lovas told The Arizona Republic last week. "They're clearly in violation of the law. They knew 70 percent of the vote would be in by the time this comes out.”
Lesko’s campaign has denied any wrongdoing and is threatening to sue Lovas.
Operatives said Lesko’s campaign finance disputes “haven’t reverberated anywhere near to the degree that the Montenegro texting scandal has in local press,” said Chip Scutari, a Republican consultant who’s not affiliated with either campaign.
Before the scandals, Montenegro and Lesko led the pack, each with 21 percent of the vote, according to an OH Predictive Insights poll released in late January. Lovas followed with 12 percent and Bob Stump, a former Arizona Corporation Commission chairman, received 10 percent.
As the top two candidates, Montenegro and Lesko dueled in ads. In one Montenegro ad, the narrator says that “many candidates claim to be conservative,” but “only [Montenegro] defended President Trump’s decision to end DACA amnesty on national media outlets like CNN.” Meanwhile, Lesko touted her support for Trump’s border wall, “but that’s not enough,” Lesko says in the ad. “We need more border patrol agents and the best technology to stop this invasion.”
Defend US PAC, an outside group supporting Lesko, hammered Montenegro in TV ads for testifying as a character witness for “illegal immigrant Mauricio Reyes-Gonzalez [who] was twice convicted on drug charges” for a “full pardon,” the ad’s narrator says.
But the race shifted from proving conservative bona fides to the ongoing texting scandal. Last week, several top Republicans called for Montenegro to quit the race, including Center for Arizona Policy President Cathi Herrod, a top conservative leader who tweeted that Montenegro should “do the right thing and withdraw from the race.”
Montenegro, however, has not made any indication that he plans to step aside.
"They're going to make a Lifetime movie out of this,” Noble said.