MARICOPA COUNTY, ARIZONA — Last winter, Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) announced suddenly that he would be resigning from the House of Representatives. Within hours, the reason why became clear: Franks had asked a staffer to be his surrogate and carry his child. His female staffers were reportedly concerned that Franks wanted to have sex with them in order to impregnate them.
So Franks resigned. His surprising departure triggered a special election, and voters are going to the polls Tuesday (or have already returned their early voting ballots) to choose Franks’ replacement. The race to replace him has captured national attention amidst the possibility — however remote — of a Democrat flipping another seat deep in Trump country. But with two women vying for the seat, and Franks — and Trump — casting a shadow over the race, it’s also raised questions about politics as not-so-usual in the #MeToo era.
Hardly a year and a half ago, President Trump won Arizona’s 8th district by more than 20 points. But two recent polls in the final days before the special election (one an internal poll released by Democrat Hiral Tipirneni’s campaign) have the Indian-American doctor within a point or tied with Republican rival Debbie Lesko, with eight to nine percent of voters still undecided.
Originally, Tipirneni had planned to run against Franks, but after he resigned, she shifted focus to Lesko in the special election to replace him. Asked by ThinkProgress last week about Franks’ surrogacy scandal, she said, “That was very unfortunate. Our concerns were always with the women that felt their respect or privacy were violated.”
Tipirneni added that the culture of sexism, in both DC and nationally, is part of what inspired her to run.
“We won’t have our voices quieted anymore. Women are ready to take the charge,” she said. “Whether it’s running for office or speaking up about sexual assault or harassment… We will be heard. We will have a seat at the table. We deserve to be there.”
Republicans have pointed to Lesko’s womanhood as an important part of her credentials to replace Franks as well. Lesko has spoken publicly about being abused by her first husband, an experience she said has made her stronger and more prepared to fight for others who have been abused. At an event Saturday, Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ) called for voters to elect Lesko because, she said, they “need more Republican ovaries in Congress.”
During a primary debate in January, Lesko was asked about the circumstances under which Franks resigned, calling it “totally unacceptable.”
“Well this is an interesting question for me because I’m the only woman and there’s eleven men running in the race,” she said of the GOP primary. “Obviously sexual harassment is totally unacceptable, has to be fully investigated, and people just need to respect each other, and then I think we’d all get along.”
Last month, she was asked about the allegations of sexual misconduct leveled by more than a dozen women against President Trump, and she echoed her call that they be investigated.
“I’m not the president, and I don’t use his rhetoric and I certainly am not going to sexually harass anyone,” she said, adding that Trump “needs to address [the allegations], obviously. It needs to be investigated.”
But since then, Lesko has struck a more reserved tone. In an interview with The New York Times last month, she reversed course.
“I didn’t mean a formal investigation by government or something like that,” she said. “I just meant it needs to run its course.”
And then, earlier this month, with just a week and a half left before election day, the Arizona Republic reported that Lesko had taken the maximum contribution from Franks, a move that immediately drew fire from Democrats.
“I think it’s an example of her character and that she is in line with his values and the way he has voted, and if you want more of the same, then she’s your candidate,” Felecia Rotellini, the chair of the Arizona Democratic party, said in an interview with ThinkProgress on Saturday. “She’s flip-flopped on very important women’s issues, and what we need is women who are going to stand up for all women and not compromise.”
(At the time of publication, Lesko’s campaign had not responded to requests for comment on her decision to accept the donation. This story will be updated should that change.)
Jason Vail Cruz, the sexual violence public policy coordinator at the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, said that, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, he has been encouraging people to ask Lesko — and Tipirneni — the hard questions about what kind of legislation they would support to dismantle rape culture should they be elected.
“I would like to hear what their plan is to deal with the problem of sexual violence,” Cruz said. “The fact is that someone is raped every 98 seconds. What is their plan to make changes around that and support services and healing?”
Beyond just services for survivors, Cruz says he wants answers to hard questions about rape culture itself.
“What is their plan to really stop the culture that provides such opportunity for perpetrators in this country?” he asked. “How are they going to be proactive in preventing sexual violence?”
ThinkProgress posed those questions to both Tipirneni and Lesko. What types of legislation would they support to help prevent sexual violence if elected?
In an emailed statement, Lesko spokesperson Barrett Marson said, “Debbie is a survivor of domestic violence and has been a longtime supporter of efforts to fund shelters for abused women. Debbie regularly attends group meetings and visits shelters to help women. In Congress, she will continue her work to help domestic violence survivors improve their lives.”
At the time of publication, Tipirneni’s campaign had not responded to requests for comment, though this story will be updated should they respond.
Regardless of party, Cruz says the race between Tipirneni and Lesko is important because electing more people — especially women — who have experienced the devastating effects of our misogynistic culture can help dismantle that culture.
“It’s important to elect folks that kind of recognize and have experience of the challenges that come with rape culture,” he said. “Women more often than men or other genders face sexual harassment, mansplaining, [and other types of discrimination].”
But for many progressives, simply electing more women isn’t enough. Like Cruz, Jodi Liggett, the vice president of external affairs for Planned Parenthood of Arizona, said in an interview with ThinkProgress on Monday that she sees this moment as an opportunity to ask hard questions about what specific policies Tipirneni, Lesko, or any other candidate running will support.
Liggett said that watching Arizona politics for years has taught her that being a woman doesn’t mean you will fight for issues important to women’s health and livelihoods. And, she said, simply electing more Democrats isn’t the answer, either. Last summer, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) ruffled feathers after they reiterated their stance that they will not withhold funding from anti-abortion Democrats.
“There is not a litmus test for Democratic candidates,” Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), the DCCC chairman, said in an interview with The Hill at the time. “As we look at candidates across the country, you need to make sure you have candidates that fit the district, that can win in these districts across America.”
Liggett took issue with that rationale on Monday.
“The human rights of half the population? Yeah, I do think that should be a litmus test. Why do you have a party if you don’t have some core values?” Liggett said. “Civil rights for people of color are not negotiable. I don’t know why bodily integrity for women is negotiable.”
That these questions remain unanswered within the Democratic Party is something Liggett says is ridiculous.
“You just keep coming back to ‘Am I a full-fledged human being or am I a walking, talking incubator?’ I can’t be both,” she said. “If I’m a human being, I have human rights. That’s where it stops.”
Liggett said Monday that they’ve also seen how excited people get about a candidate like Tipirneni, who is pro-choice. (“I truly do believe that that is a decision that should be between a woman, her partner, her physician, and her faith,” Tipirneni said Sunday night on MSNBC when asked if she would support a later-term abortion ban.)
“It all starts with a level of engagement that we’re finally starting to see. I like the direction that we and our allies are headed,” she said of Tipirneni’s race and other elections to come.
“Women, young people, people of color, that’s the path. We are not running around chasing angry white dudes and trying to figure out what they’re so upset about,” Liggett said, putting on a pundit-mocking sing-song voice. “I reject that. Planned Parenthood rejects that. There are people in our party who want to take that approach. Nothing against white dudes, but [we] really want to roll up our sleeves and do something.”