GOP could blow Arizona

A brutal GOP primary is boosting Democrats' chances of taking a Senate seat -- and Obama's chance to win the state

Published June 22, 2012 5:17PM (EDT)

     (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

In 1976, Dennis DeConcini, a young, one-term Democratic prosecutor from Tucson, stormed to a 10-point victory in the U.S. Senate race after Republicans Sam Steiger and John Conlan eviscerated each other in a brutal primary. It was the last time the Democrats picked up a Senate seat in the Grand Canyon State.

As Arizona’s unpredictable monsoon season approaches, ominous storm clouds are appearing that could threaten Republican prospects of holding retiring Sen. Jon Kyl’s seat and once again thrust another relatively unknown Tucson Democrat into the Senate.

Democrats are hoping that former U.S. Surgeon General Rich Carmona, a George W. Bush appointee, will be the lightning rod that finally arouses the long dormant Latino vote and propels Carmona into the Senate and delivers Arizona to Barack Obama. A poll from Public Policy Polling this week showed this as a distinct possibility. Carmona trailed his likely Republican opponent, Rep. Jeff Flake, by just 2 points, and Obama trailed Mitt Romney in Arizona by only 3 points, 49-46.

Flake is not, however, quite as likely an opponent as he was a few months ago. While Arizona political analysts consider such a scenario to be unlikely, an increasingly nasty Republican senatorial primary between Flake, a six-term representative, and self-funded Tea Party favorite Wil Cardon is providing a rare opportunity for a moderate candidate like Carmona to sneak into the Senate.

Last winter, Flake was considered a shoo-in for the Republican nomination and the odds-on favorite to succeed Kyl in the Senate. Flake made his name representing Arizona’s 6th District as a vociferous opponent of pork spending, but has been vulnerable to attacks for his past lobbying activities for a Namibian uranium mining operation with ties to Iran, as well as his frequent travel.

Cardon, the scion of a prominent Mesa, Ariz., family that made a fortune in real estate, holds an undergraduate degree from Stanford and a Harvard MBA. He has spent more than $4 million in attack television ads and is gaining some traction in polls. Cardon closed Flake’s 49-point lead in February to a 42-20 percent margin by late May, with one-third of the voters undecided, according to a survey by PPP conducted for Project New America.

“The big story in Arizona is Wil Cardon chopping more than 20 points off Jeff Flake’s lead in the primary,” said Dean Debnam, president of PPP. “This race is starting to show some of the upset potential that has characterized many Republican Senate primaries over the last two cycles.”

Whether Cardon can continue to cut into Flake’s lead is likely to be an uphill battle that will require him to continue spending millions of his own dollars. But so far, Cardon appears ready to keep the campaign coffers full.

“I would be surprised if Wil Cardon wins, but he does slant his whole campaign to the Tea Party,” says Bruce Merrill, a senior fellow at Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University. “He’s taking a very harsh position on immigration and the Dream Act. He’s to the middle if not the right of the Tea Party. Flake is much more moderate.”

Flake’s campaign launched its first television ad earlier this month and has stepped up attacks against Cardon by circulating a January FEC complaint alleging Cardon is using illegal corporate campaign contributions from family businesses. Flake overreached last week, however, accusing Cardon of not paying income taxes for a company that he had no association with. Flake issued an apology, and Cardon responded with a pointed retort.

On the heels of the May poll showing Cardon cutting into Flake’s lead, the Club for Growth launched a $500,000 radio and television campaign attacking Cardon, claiming he’s a Republican poser who supports raising taxes.

If Cardon continues to gain ground on Flake, the campaign could get increasingly ugly, which is exactly the scenario that Democrats hope unfolds.

“If Flake starts to think he could lose this, then the knives will come out,” says Mike O’Neil, a longtime Arizona political analyst.

Assuming Flake tamps down Cardon’s insurgent campaign and wins the primary without too much bloodletting, the Democrats still have a path to victory in Arizona, albeit a difficult one.

The key for both Carmona and Obama will be increasing Latino voter registration and getting them to vote, which has been a mantra for 40 years in Arizona Democratic circles that has never materialized.

“Right now, you have a 6 percent Republican plurality,” says O’Neil. “If you can cut that to 2 or 3 percent with an increase in Hispanic registration and turnout, then Arizona is in play [for Obama] and Carmona has a shot … without that, there’s no chance.”

Carmona has the back story that any candidate would envy and one that should not only motivate Hispanics to the polls, but also attract large numbers of independent voters and some moderate Republicans.

“Our opportunity is the huge universe of persuadable voters, both moderate Republicans and independents,” says Carmona spokesman Andy Barr. “We believe strongly we can win because of that group.”

Raised in New York City in a poor Hispanic immigrant family, Carmona dropped out of high school, enlisted in the Army and served in Vietnam as a Special Forces combat medic, winning two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts. He returned to New York and earned a college degree through open enrollment for returning veterans. He continued his education at the University of California, San Francisco’s medical school, where he graduated first in his class.

Carmona later moved to Tucson to start southern Arizona’s first trauma system and spent 25 years with the Pima County Sheriff’s Office as department surgeon and SWAT team leader. President Bush nominated Carmona as U.S. surgeon general in 2002 and he became a leading advocate on the dangers of secondhand smoke.

“He certainly helps Obama,” says the Morrison Institute’s Merrill. “He’s got a real life story and he’s also Hispanic.”

Merrill says Carmona could be the catalyst to bring out Hispanic voters angry over the anti-immigration policies promoted by prominent Arizona Republicans including Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s aggressive roundups of Hispanics and Gov. Jan Brewer’s support of SB1070, the controversial immigration law that is awaiting a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.

The president’s decision last week to allow undocumented people under 30 to obtain work authorizations and be exempt from deportation if they meet certain criteria such as joining the military or attending college is also expected to help motivate young Hispanics to support Democratic candidates.

“The Hispanic vote will be increased this time,” Merrill says. “The question is how much bigger will it be?”

By John Dougherty

John Dougherty is a freelance journalist who worked 13 years for Phoenix New Times, where he frequently reported on the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. He's also been a contributor to the New York Times and Washington Post, and can be emailed at

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2012 Elections Arizona