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Arizona Republicans reject candidate tainted by text scandal

The race replace a disgraced congressman took a turn for the weird when his hand-picked successor ran into his own scandal.

WASHINGTON -- Two scandals were too many.

Former state senator Debbie Lesko won the GOP primary in a special congressional election in Arizona Tuesday night, The Associated Press reported. Republicans there rejected a front-runner who had been hit by scandal in the final days of the race to fill a seat vacated by a former congressman who had himself resigned in disgrace.

With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Lesko had earned 36 percent of the vote in the crowded primary, with former state Sen. Steve Montenegro well behind and nearly tied with former Donald Trump campaign official Phil Lovas, according to results published by the Arizona Secretary of State.

Republican candidate and former Arizona state Sen. Debbie Lesko, right, celebrates with former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer as she claims victory in the Congressional District 8 seat during a campaign party at Lesko's home in Glendale, Arizona, Tuesday night.Ralph Freso / AP

Flanked by former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, her most prominent supporter, Lesko thanked supporters who had gathered at her home and told reporters she was looking forward to the general election in April. “This is so sweet,” she said. "We’re going to have a party in April."

Montenegro conceded the race at a sports bar in Goodyear, Arizona.

Republican Trent Franks left Congress last year after admitting that he had put female staffers in inappropriate positions, including requesting they serve as surrogate mothers for his children.

Last week, the election to replace Franks was rocked when Montenegro, whom Franks had endorsed, got tangled up in his own scandal involving a junior staffer.

Several prominent Arizona Republicans called on Montenegro to withdraw from the race after text messages leaked to local media showed that Montenegro, a Christian minister, received a topless photo of a woman during a year-long flirty relationship.

Montenegro denied the relationship was inappropriate or ever got physical, and said he cut off contact with the woman and informed his wife when she sent the nude photo. But the relationship may have been enough to cost Montenegro the race.

Lesko will now face off against Democrat Hiral Tipirneni, a physician who also won her own primary Tuesday night, in the April 24 special election. But Republicans are heavily favored to retain the conservative district, even with the wind at Democrats’ backs this year.

The outcome will have some Arizona Republicans breathing easier, since they feared the possibility of a Democratic upset with a Roy Moore-like candidate on the ballot if Montenegro had won.

Associated Press contributed.