Swing State GOP Rep’s Retirement Sets Up Messy Republican Primary For 2024

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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Mary Lou Masters Contributor
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Arizona GOP Rep. Debbie Lesko’s recent announcement that she’d be retiring at the end of her term has set up a competitive race ahead of 2024 with several prominent Republican candidates already vying for the seat.

After serving in Congress since 2018, Lesko decided in mid-October to forgo another term and return home to Arizona, prompting Republicans across the state to jump into the race for the solid-red seat. Former GOP attorney general nominee Abe Hamadeh, former GOP Senate nominee Blake Masters, Arizona House Speaker Ben Toma, state Sen. Anthony Kern and former Republican Rep. Trent Franks are all running for the chance to succeed Lesko in 2024.

“There is no doubt that an open seat in a safe district will draw a number of people who envision themselves as a congressman for 20 years, or as a stepping stone to something else,” Barrett Marson, an Arizona-based Republican strategist, told the Daily Caller News Foundation. (RELATED: GOP Stars Emerge As Possible Congress Contenders After Swing-State Rep Announces Retirement)

Hamadeh ran for Arizona attorney general in 2022 with former President Donald Trump’s support, and narrowly lost by less than 300 votes to Democrat Kris Mayes. The Republican is an Army veteran who served as a prosecutor in Maricopa County prior to his statewide run.

Following the November election, Hamadeh and the Republican National Committee sued then-Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, now the Democratic governor, as well as county authorities over alleged “errors and inaccuracies” believed to have affected the outcome.

Hamadeh launched his congressional campaign on Twitter just hours after Lesko’s announcement not to seek another term. Former Arizona GOP gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake quickly threw her support behind Hamadeh in late October, and Trump endorsed him on Dec. 8.

“I am confident Arizonans will choose to send me to Washington because I have proven to them that I am a fighter that will stand up for them against the entrenched political class and the radical left that are sacrificing the American dream for their own self interests,” Hamadeh told the DCNF. “Running a statewide campaign allowed me the privilege of getting to know voters all over Arizona and there was always something special about this district. The patriotism is strong and people understand what is on the line.”

Hamadeh said the 8th Congressional District is “highly important” to him, as it’s where he grew up, he told the DCNF. The candidate believes the most important issues facing the nation are “the weaponization of our institutions against political opponents,” the southern border and “a crisis of leadership in Washington.”

Masters ran for Senate in last year’s midterms against Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, also with Trump’s endorsement, but lost by nearly 5 points. After speculation he might make another run for the upper chamber in 2024, and encouragement from the influential Club for Growth to instead run for Congress, Masters threw his hat into the race a week after Hamadeh.

The Republican told the DCNF he’d focus on securing the border, reducing inflation, bolstering the economy and securing “Arizona’s water future,” while using his background as a businessman in technology to combat the threats of “Big Tech.”

“The voters’ endorsement is what matters most, and I’m pleased to be polling in first place, ten points ahead of my nearest competitor, because voters in CD8 know I’m the strongest and most conservative candidate in the race,” Masters told the DCNF. “We don’t need more politicians who parrot easy talking points. We need smart, successful businessmen and family men to go to DC and set things straight.”

Masters was leading Hamadeh by nearly 15 points among likely voters in a late October Data Orbital poll, followed by Toma and Kern with 7% and 6% support, respectively. A National Public Affairs survey conducted from Dec. 16 to Dec. 17 found Hamadeh ahead of Masters by 23 points, with Toma at 7%, Franks at 6% and Kern at 3%.

Marson noted how neither Hamadeh nor Masters have voting records to point to like the other elected officials in the race, and described them both as “people who are not natural fits to the West Valley of Phoenix.” Neither Hamadeh nor Masters live in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District, according to the Arizona Republic.

Brian Murray, former Arizona GOP executive director, also questioned the two for running for a seat not in the districts in which they reside.

“I feel like it just leaves a bad taste in [the voter’s] mouth,” Murray, who is supporting Toma, told the DCNF. “You’re just gonna hop around from race to race to run for office? Like, why are you running?”

PRESCOTT, AZ - NOVEMBER 07: Arizona Republican senate candidate Blake Masters speaks during a get out the vote campaign rally on November 07, 2022 in Prescott, Arizona. With 1 day to go until election day, Blake Masters and other Republican candidates campaigning throughout the state ahead of Tuesday's midterm election. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

PRESCOTT, AZ – NOVEMBER 07: Arizona Republican senate candidate Blake Masters speaks during a get out the vote campaign rally. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Conversely, Toma lives in the district, and has been representing a portion of it in the Arizona legislature since 2017. The state House speaker, who also previously served as the majority leader, launched his campaign on Nov. 2 with the backing of Lesko.

Toma touted his track record in the state legislature, and pointed out Hamadeh and Masters’ lack of political experience in comments to the DCNF.

“Of the top three candidates in this race, I’m the only one who has a proven track record and leadership on conservative causes,” Toma said. “I’m also the only candidate in the top tier that actually happens to live in the district. As I have campaigned across the district, I hear repeatedly from base Republican voters how important that is to them. The sentiment seems to be, just because you CAN run for Congress in a district you don’t live in, doesn’t mean you SHOULD.”

The speaker said the most pressing issues facing the country that he’d seek to address in Congress would be to strengthen the border, reduce federal spending and promote election integrity.

“Ben Toma just has the record, and I think that is going to be able to play well. He’ll be able to trumpet his victories,” said Marson, who is unaffiliated. “Ben Toma has the best ability to sort of win this race. But, we’re gonna have to see the first quarter fundraising numbers to see if Abe can turn that Trump endorsement into actual money.”

Murray argued that Toma and Hamadeh are the two frontrunners for the seat, adding that endorsements and fundraising will paint the clearest picture of candidate strength, he told the DCNF.

Kern, a state senator who also lives in and represents a portion of the district, jumped in the race days before Toma. Kern is a member of Arizona’s Freedom Caucus, the chairman of the state Senate Judiciary Committee, a former state representative and a 2016 at-large delegate to the Republican National Convention.

Kern, who was endorsed by Trump in his state Senate race, told the DCNF that the most important issues he wants to solve in Congress are election integrity and solving the border crisis.

“I wouldn’t run if I didn’t think I could win. I would stay comfortably in the state Senate with my base support,” said Kern. “I’m a proven fighter. I’ve lived in the district 35 years, two of the candidates have not lived in the district … the voters can see through the shenanigans that are being played. And I really, really, really believe with all my heart, I have enough name recognition, we have boots on the ground, we have 120 volunteers ready on January 2, and we’re going to win this in the ground game.”

Marson cautioned that Kern might face legal complications amid his 2024 run, as he was among the protestors outside of the Capitol on Jan.6 and was one of Trump’s allegedfake electors” in 2020, which the state’s attorney general is currently investigating.

“I’ve had the DOJ, the FBI, the attorney general here in Arizona knocking on my door, told them to get off my property, told them to call my attorney. But you know what, if it comes to where there’s indictments that come down, so be it,” Kern told the DCNF. “I’ve been to jail before, I’ll do it again.”

Murray believes a potential indictment could even help Kern in the primary, and told the DCNF the state senator shouldn’t be counted out at this point in the race.

“I mean, he might raise a ton of money. And I kind of view Kern as like this wild card slot in a crowded field, and you’re the victim of Democrat persecution, and all these other things. Could he make a move?” Murray said.

Franks, who represented the 8th Congressional District for roughly 15 years, is running for the seat again. The congressman resigned in December 2017 after he reportedly asked two female staffers to carry his child, prompting an investigation by the House Ethics Committee.

Franks believes his “years of seniority in Congress” will serve as an asset to his campaign, and pledged to reel in spending and promote national security, while tackling the “[weaponization of] the justice system” and “the woke insanity of the left,” he told the DCNF.

“For many years, It was my privilege to represent Congressional District 8 in Congress, including most of how it is now constituted. No one can dispute my conservative legislative and voting record,” said Franks. “While there are many wonderful people in this race, most can only offer persuasive promises where I can offer proven performance. With all of the serious threats facing our country today under the Biden presidency, I believe that the voters of this district want a proven conservative with an incontrovertible record of fighting for the issues critical to them in America.”

Murray believes Franks is “a non-factor in the race,” and Marson doesn’t think enough time has passed since his resignation for voters to want to reelect him.

“It was an embarrassment. And six years is not enough space to get over that embarrassment,” Marson told the DCNF.

The Cook Political Report classifies Lesko’s open seat as in the “Solid Republican” category for 2024, with a “R+10” partisan score.

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