Allegations on voter's minds in Arizona race for US House

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PHOENIX (AP) -

Allegations of impropriety against the top candidates were on voters' minds as the last ballots were cast in Tuesday's Republican primary to replace a U.S. congressman from Arizona who quit amid charges of sexual misconduct last year.

Arizona relies heavily on mail-ballots and they were mainly completed before the sex-related and campaign funding revelations surfaced in the contest to replace former Rep. Trent Franks in the western Phoenix suburbs of the 8th Congressional District.

[RELATED: Lesko, Tipirneni up early in CD 8 primary results]

[GET: Live election results]

Polls closed at 7 p.m. Tuesday, and the first returns were expected about an hour later. About 100,000 early ballots were counted by mid-afternoon, said Matt Roberts, Arizona Secretary of State spokeswoman. Officials estimate another 30,000 will be cast at voting stations before day's end.

[RELATED: Shell corporations cloud former Rep. Trent Franks’ family fortune]

There were only a few hiccups at polling stations that were quickly ironed out, including printers that didn't work or a lack of paper ballots, said Murphy Hebert, communications director for the Maricopa County Recorder's Office.

A dozen candidates are running in the Republican primary while two Democrats are seeking their party's nomination, hoping for a longshot win in the April 24 general election.

Franks, who held the House seat since 2003, resigned in December after acknowledging he had discussed surrogacy with two female staffers. A former aide told The Associated Press that he pressed her to carry his child as a surrogate and offered her $5 million.

The top favorites in the 12-way GOP race to replace him are former state Sen. Steve Montenegro, a Tea Party favorite backed by Franks, and former state Sen. Debbie Lesko, backed by popular former Gov. Jan Brewer.

Montenegro, a married father and Christian minister, acknowledged last week that a former Senate aide had sent him an unsolicited topless photo in a text. He said he became too close to the woman, but "never had an inappropriate relationship with her or anyone else."

Meanwhile, Lesko has denied charges by Montenegro and others that her transfer of $50,000 from her state campaign committee for the primary contest was illegal. Lesko was one of the drivers of the state's landmark school voucher program and is touting her border security plan.

[RELATED: Ex-staffer regrets racy photos sent to congressional hopeful]

Montenegro, a married father and Christian minister who was Franks' district director, admitted last week that reports about the texts between him and a former Senate aide were true. He said he became too close to the woman and that while she sent an unsolicited topless photo, he "never had inappropriate relationship with her or anyone else."

The staffer's attorney said Montenegro had "groomed" her for months and that they discussed various sexual matters.

Meanwhile, former state Sen. Debbie Lesko is denying charges by Montenegro and others that her transfer of $50,000 from her state campaign committee for the primary contest was illegal. Lesko was one of the drivers of the state's landmark school voucher program and is touting her border security plan.

Another primary candidate, former state House member Phil Lovas, has filed complaints with federal election officials and the state attorney general alleging Lesko's cash transfers were illegal. Lovas boasts of his early support for President Donald Trump, although the president has not made an endorsement in the race. He stepped down from his state House seat last year after he was appointed to a Small Business Administration post in the Trump administration.

[RELATED: Disgraced congressman plays key role in special election to replace him]

Another primary candidate, former state House member Phil Lovas, has filed complaints with federal election officials and the state attorney general alleging Lesko's cash transfers were illegal.

Paul Bentz, a researcher and strategist at the Phoenix-based political consulting firm High Ground, said he wouldn't rule out a surprise win by Lovas, "but I think it really does come down to Montenegro versus Lesko."

The other Republican candidates include former state lawmaker and utility regulation commission member Bob Stump and radio host Clair Van Steenwyk, who twice challenged Franks.

Corinne Clark, a retail worker from Surprise, Arizona, said she regretted casting her ballot for Montenegro in early voting, before the allegations about him surfaced.

"Whether it's true or not is hard to know," Clark said. "But my number one reason for voting for him was because he has Christian values, and it makes me mad that this has come up afterward."

[RELATED: Special election for Arizona's Congressional District 8]

Dion Munoz, a 70-year-old retired aircraft mechanic from Long Island, New York, now living in Sun City, said Monday he voted for Lesko via mail-in ballot because "I didn't get good vibes about Montenegro."

The Democrats, Dr. Hiral Tipirneni and Brianna Westbrook, are political newcomers. Tipirneni is an emergency-room physician who is backed by former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords.

Walter King, a 69-year-old retiree from Seattle who now lives in Sun City, said he voted for Tipirneni by mail-in ballot, but didn't expect her to defeat whatever Republican wins the primary.

"I like to think the state is slowly turning purple," King said Monday as he sat in his golf cart, a common form of area transportation, with his French bulldog mix Stuart. "But it's still mostly red."

[SPECIAL SECTION: Arizona politics]

Snow reported from Sun City,.

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