With Carmona, Dems See Arizona Senate Race in Play

With Carmona, Dems See Arizona Senate Race in Play

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - November 15, 2011

Arizona voters haven't sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in nearly 24 years and haven't backed one for president since 1996. But with the Democratic majority in the upper chamber and leadership in the White House on the line in 2012, the party is broadening its map to include the red southwestern state, believing that with just the right calculus, Arizona will be in play.

A substantial part of that equation appeared to be missing until late last week, when Army veteran and former U.S. Surgeon General (under George W. Bush) Richard Carmona announced he is running for the open seat held for nearly 18 years by retiring Republican Sen. Jon Kyl. Democrats already had former Arizona party chairman Don Bivens in the race but were looking for someone with a better chance of winning the general election in the state, which most political handicappers rate as leaning Republican. President Obama -- eyeing Arizona as part of his strategy -- reportedly encouraged Carmona, a registered independent, to make the bid. Carmona will run as a Democrat and is expected to change his party registration by the end of the week, a source close to his campaign told RCP.

Obama and Democrats figure that if Sen. John McCain hadn't been a favorite son presidential candidate in 2008, "Arizona would have been in play," says state political strategist Mike O'Neil. "A lot of people get a misimpression about the state. We are darn close to the national center on most issues, though our legislature is not, due to the mechanics of districting. But if you look at the votes in statewide races, a good candidate can win on the Democratic side." On paper, Arizona looks purple: Republicans, Democrats and independents each make up about a third of the electorate, though the GOP wins a slight plurality.

The Democratic Party operation in Washington also courted Carmona and since his entrance has been touting his personal narrative, one strategists say can make a difference in this race. The son of poor immigrants, Carmona dropped out of high school and joined the Army, eventually earning a pair of Purple Hearts, among other honors, and a medical degree from the University of California. In 2002, then-President George W. Bush nominated him to be surgeon general, and he was confirmed unanimously by the Senate. After that tenure, he went back to Arizona to lead a non-profit and teach medical students at his alma mater.

Democrats say Carmona's service in the Bush administration throws cold water on any future Republican attempts to label him a liberal or pin him to the current White House. And as the Arizona Republic reports, Carmona received high accolades from McCain and Kyl during the surgeon general confirmation hearing. The Arizona senators praised Carmona as "an invaluable leader" (McCain) and a "man for all seasons" (Kyl). Expect to see those on-the-record comments reappear in this race, though Republicans will likely counter that the comments were made in a different context.

Carmona's Bush-era service may have given him national name recognition, but he will have to build an ID from the bottom up at home in Arizona. It's still early, and six-term Republican Rep. Jeff Flake, the odds-on favorite to win his party's nomination for the Senate seat, "is not a household name" either, says O'Neil.

Flake launched his bid shortly after Kyl announced his retirement, and conventional wisdom surrounding this race signals it is his to lose. The congressman is popular among Republicans and Tea Party types and is backed by the conservative and well-heeled Club for Growth. He has been running at a steady pace and has filled his campaign coffers with over $2 million in cash. But he will also face a primary challenge from wealthy investor Wil Cardon, who, according to Roll Call, brought in $1.2 million last quarter -- $800,000 of which was his own.

Democrats will attempt to tie Flake to the Washington culture and the House Republican budget proposal to change Medicare, and will attack his wavering stance on comprehensive immigration reform -- he initially supported the reform, but backed away in March, telling the Arizona Republic, "The political realities in Washington are such that a comprehensive solution is not possible, or even desirable given the current leadership." Kyl previously expressed similar views.

Others counter he has been consistent in refusing earmarks. "He is not a guy who brings home the bacon . . . who rails against government then tries to pile up the benefits for his district," says O'Neil, who notes this sometimes irritates people in the business community and in Flake's district, who want him to bring more back home. A Mormon, Flake will get strong support from his religious community. Mormons make up a small percentage of the Arizona population, but tend to be very motivated and influential when it comes to politics in the Grand Canyon State.

Flake is also a tested candidate, while Carmona has to overcome the challenges associated with running for office for the first time. Within the first week of his campaign, he grabbed some headlines: Two days after being appointed by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to investigate the improper handling of soldiers' remains at Dover Air Force Base, Carmona stepped down to run for Senate, causing some confusion at the Pentagon, according to the Los Angeles Times. The National Republican Senatorial Committee cited this incident in its daily opposition research blast.

And while Carmona appears to be favored to win the Democratic nod, he still has to survive a primary against Bivens, who has support from former Arizona Reps. Harry Mitchell and Ann Kirkpatrick, a slightly higher name recognition in the state and connections to local Democratic leaders. Republicans say the primary process will weaken the candidates and the party. "It's clear the Democrats are going to have very divisive primary on their hands given the choice of Washington establishment versus their former state party chair," says Brian Walsh, spokesman for the NRSC. "At the end of the day this is a Republican state, and we are very confident."

Democrats plan on framing this election as a stand against political overreach. They cite last week's recall of state Sen. Russell Pearce, the architect of Arizona's controversial immigration policy, and the ousting of an independent redistricting commissioner as the most recent examples. The Democratic nominee will need to push that narrative, they say.

But the first test for Carmona will be whether he can raise the kind of money Flake is bringing in. That's where the Obama machine can be critical. "If Obama is really behind this and is willing to help and gets amply funded, we're almost a tossup state," says O'Neil, referring to the Senate race. He will need the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to send money his way, too. But if the Obama camp plays in Arizona, at least in the beginning, as it has signaled it would, the operation could give Carmona a big boost. And the logic is that Carmona can help the president with independents, who constitute a third of the electorate, and Hispanics, who also make up 30 percent. But whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee will have to plan strategically just how much he wants the president in the state and publicly on his side.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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