Republicans are agonizing in fear 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 the fate of Arizona’s 8th Congressional District could hinge on a naked selfie after a bombshell report of nude photos and text messages exchanged between the candidate, former state Sen. Steve Montenegro, and a legislative staffer. “Deep down, I’m worried because I don’t want this to be another Roy Moore situation,” Verdone added, according to POLITICO.
Montenegro initially denied reports about the texts, shared with multiple media outlets in the state, calling it “false tabloid trash,” but later admitted that he exchanged salacious text messages with the legislative staffer, later identified as Stephanie Holford, over several months.
An attorney representing Holford said that she sent multiple nude photos to the Republican candidate, along with explicit discussions over Snapchat.
The scandal, which came to light 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.
In his first interview since the story broke, Montenegro told the Washington Examiner he never solicited the photo. He also accused his opponents of sabotaging his political career with “revenge porn.”
Before the turmoil, Montenegro had lined up endorsements from Franks and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), whose leadership PAC boosted Montenegro in TV ads. Montenegro was tied in the polls with primary opponent Debbie Lesko when ballots were mailed out at the end of January.
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 election data from the Arizona’s secretary of state’s office. For that reason, Montenegro is trying to run out the clock.
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.”
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.