WASHINGTON – Declaring Washington “broken,” four-term Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, made the surprise announcement Tuesday that she will serve out her current term but will not seek reelection next year.
The announcement shocked political observers who said Lesko’s departure opens the door to what will likely be a crowded, and costly, GOP primary to replace her in what has been called a solidly Republican district.
“It’s going to be one of the most watched races in the state, all of a sudden,” said Paul Bentz, senior vice president of research and strategy for Highground Inc. “This is a pretty shocking announcement that creates a very competitive race that a lot of people are going to jump into.”
While they expressed surprise, however, analysts said Lesko’s announcement is an indicator of bad things happening in Washington, where the House has been shut down for more than two weeks, as the Republican majority squabbles over a replacement for the House speaker they ousted.
“I think it’s also another tell politically of how things are devolving right now. And it’s pushing out good public servants basically out of the fold,” said Mike Noble, CEO of Phoenix-based Noble Predictive Insights.
Lesko was not available for comment Wednesday. But inposted Tuesday evening to X, formerly known as Twitter, she said that while it has been “a great honor to serve,” she was ready to throw in the towel.
“Spending, on average, three weeks out of every month away from my family, and traveling back and forth to Washington, D.C., almost every weekend is difficult,” her statement said. “Right now, Washington, D.C., is broken, it is hard to get anything done.”
Lesko said she will serve until her term expires in January 2025, but after that she plans to “spend more time with my husband, my 94-year-old mother, my three children, and my five grandchildren.”
It’s a sharp turnaround for Lesko, who told Cronkite News months after taking office in a special election in 2018 that being in Congress was “very rewarding work and I absolutely love it.“
“I don’t know if she is someone who I would’ve expected to be first to head for the exits,” said Erin Covey, an analyst for Inside Elections.
Lesko won the seat after defeating 11 other candidates in a Republican primary to succeed former Rep. Trent Franks, R-Glendale, who resigned in the face of a House Ethics Committee investigation of allegations that he sexually harassed female staffers.
She won election to the full term just months later, and hasby comfortable margins ever since. The 8th District, which covers much of the Valley northwest of Phoenix, has been rated a seat.
Noble predicts that the race to replace Lesko will not just be crazy, but it’s “unequivocally going to be a mad dash, insane primary.”
“I think it’ll be another expensive race and a very bloody race to say the least. But it should make for good news and entertainment,” Noble said.
Within hours of Lesko posting her announcement, failed 2022 GOP attorney general nomineehad thrown his hat in the ring, saying he will run for the 8th District seat. And experts say he definitely will not be the last.
Other names that have been mentioned include Blake Masters, the 2022 GOP Senate nominee who lost to Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., and who was reportedly considering another Senate run, in a race that already has two Republicans running.
“It’s a pressure release valve for some of these Republicans to go to this congressional race which is wide open right now, instead of being in some of these other spots,” Bentz said.
J. Miles Coleman of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics said the 8th District is a safe Republican seat – for now. But he said a nominee from the fringes of the party might not do as well as Lesko has.
“This is an area where Republicans, they may end up going with a riskier nominee, say a Masters or a Hamadeh. But they probably do have some candidates who are more in the mold of a Lesko who would be more of a less-rock-the-boat type of Republican,” Coleman said.
Bentz described Lesko as a “strong conservative fighter” – she has aof 92.18% from the Conservative Political Action Conference for her voting record – but he, along with other experts, agree with her that Washington is “broken.”
“Getting things done, especially in a very intransigent and very partisan environment has been very difficult,” Bentz said.
Dave Wasserman, senior editor and elections analyst for Cook Political Report with Amy Walter, said that while the disarray in Congress is not enough to deter new Republicans from running for office, the same might not be true for current members.
“It might be a surprise that more Republicans haven’t headed for the exits yet. But I expect there to be quite a few…as filing deadlines approach,” Wasserman said.