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More than 100,000 early votes cast in hot CD8 race

Voters went to the polls Tuesday for a special primary election to replace former Rep. Trent Franks, R-Glendale, but the nearly 2,000 who had showed up by late morning were dwarfed by the more than 101,000 mail-in ballots in the race.

Still, the level of interest was not surprising to analysts, who said the hotly contested primary was likely to spur interest in a district that leans toward older voters who already tend to be more politically active.

What’s unclear is how many of those votes were cast before last week, when the Republican primary blew up in accusations and counter-accusations between the leading candidates. Or if the controversy affected voting after.

“For this particular district, you have a disproportionate amount of senior voters, so people who still read newspapers and watch local broadcasts,” said Jason Rose, a Republican political consultant.

“Because of that, there is a high chance that the craziness of the past couple of weeks is going to increase turn out beyond what we were expecting,” Rose said.

Early voting in the 8th District primary began Jan. 31 and the Maricopa County Recorders Office said it had received 101,470 early ballots before polls opened at 6 a.m. By 10:30 a.m., 1,986 ballots or provisional ballots had been collected at polling places.

There are a total of 457,995 registered voters in the district, which leans heavily Republican: 41 percent of voters there are Republicans, compared with 24 percent Democrat and 34 percent independents.

That makeup and the sudden opening of what was thought an unassailable seat – Franks resigned in December after the House Ethics Committee said it planned to investigate charges that he sexually harassed staffers – lead to a flood of GOP candidates. A Democrat has not held the seat since the early 1980s.

There are a dozen Republican candidates running in the primary, with former state lawmakers Debbie Lesko, Steve Montenegro and Phil Lovas generally seen as the frontrunners. But Lesko and Montenegro became embroiled in controversy, when news stories surfaced suggesting Montenegro may have had an improper relationship with a staffer and he accused Lesko of improperly funding her congressional campaign from her state campaign account.

Whoever wins the GOP primary will be a heavy favorite to win the April 24 general election, when they will face the winner of the Democratic primary – either Brianna Westbrook or Hiral Tipirneni, both political newcomers – and several write-in candidates.

The winner will have to almost immediately start running for re-election, with a regular primary in August for the November general election.

Matt Roberts, a communications director for Arizona Secretary of State’s office, said elections officials in Maricopa County have seen “a good surge in registered independent votes but are seeing more registered Republicans than Democrats, which is typical for the district.”

Political analysts say the special primary is on track to see “relatively low to average turnout,” which is expected, but note that there could be a bump in turnout because of the recent news regarding the candidates.

David Wells, a political science professor at Arizona State University, said the large number or early ballots it not unusual in a district like the 8th, with older and more politically active constituents.

“Usually around 80 to 85 percent are early ballots, and those who do show up in the polls today are going to be a small percentage of people who favor voting in person or are just dropping off their ballot,” Wells said.

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