Republican Senate candidate Wil Cardon’s campaign pit stop Thursday turned into a marathon question-and-answer session, first at a Republican meet-and-greet then at a Payson Tea Party session.
The unflappable Mesa businessman demonstrated a genial appetite for questions and bragged on both his business background and his lack of political experience, asserting that only 15 U.S. Senators have been in business.
“We have to change the composition of Congress,” Cardon told about 100 people gathered for the weekly Payson Tea Party meeting at Tiny’s Restaurant. “You can’t send the same people back there and get a different result. We need outsiders, not insiders. I’m not running for the endorsement of the establishment — I’m running to replace them. I want them gone.”
Along the way, Cardon called for the elimination of the federal Department of Education, the use of U.S. Special Forces to seal the border with Mexico and the elimination of congressional pensions and medical benefits. He also collected signatures for a petition drive opposing any U.S. involvement with “Agenda 21,” which is a non-binding United Nations plan to promote sustainable development signed by 178 nations since 1992.
The fifth-generation Arizona developer and businessman defended his mostly self-funded, bruising fight to wrest the nomination away from six-term Congressman Jeff Flake, who spent a career defying House leadership, but now has the backing of the Republican establishment — including both Sen. John McCain and Sen. Jon Kyl.
Flake will himself appear at a Republican Party gathering in Payson today from 4 to 5 p.m. at the Republican Party Headquarters in Payson at 616 S. Beeline Highway.
The other Republican primary candidates haven’t raised much money or received much coverage, including talk show host Clair Van Steenwyk and former Youngtown mayor, Bryan Hackbarth.
The winner in the Republican Aug. 28 primary will face former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona in the Nov. 4 general election. Carmona, an emergency room doctor and decorated combat medic, is running unopposed in the Democratic primary.
Several polls put Flake and Carmona neck and neck in a general election matchup. Several other polls show that Cardon has whittled away at Flake’s once wide lead in the primary.
Flake has gathered a fistful of endorsements, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Rep. Paul Ryan. Cardon has countered with a shorter list that includes former presidential candidate Rick Santorum and Arizona Congressman Trent Franks.
One measure of how heated the Republican primary has grown came in Cardon’s answer to a question about whether his staunchly conservative views would make it possible for him to accomplish things in a non-partisan way.
Cardon’s answer focused entirely on his battles with fellow Republicans. In fact, during his two-hour presentation in front of the Tea Party, he frequently assailed Flake, but never mentioned his potential Democratic opponent.
“I’m disappointed in Sen. McCain and Sen. Kyl,” he said in response to the non-partisan question. Cardon noted that McCain refused to even return phone calls and Kyl initially promised to remain neutral in the primary. However, shortly before Kyl endorsed Flake, a staff member told Cardon not to call his office again.
“We need to have people who don’t need press conferences to talk to each other. I think we ought to throw them all out and replace them with people who will talk to one another.”
Cardon said it’s not enough for Republicans to elect Mitt Romney as president and take control of the U.S. Senate from the Democrats. They must also elect the right sort of Republicans.
“Imagine that 51-seat Republican majority in the Senate that includes faces like Kyl and Flake and McCain. Then picture that same 51 with businessmen. Do you think you’ll get a different result?” he asked, provoking a round of applause.
Cardon has provoked criticism from some Republicans for his attacks on Flake, who started out far ahead in the polls.
Cardon has spent $7.5 million of his own money and collected about $900,000 in donations. Flake has collected nearly $5 million and enjoyed the independent support of the Club for Growth, a staunchly conservative pro-business, anti-regulation lobbying group that has set up a Political Action Committee to take advantage of laws that allow unlimited spending to back candidates as long as the PAC doesn’t coordinate directly with the candidate.
Cardon has also castigated Flake for not agreeing to a debate. “We have a gentleman who won’t debate me and won’t be transparent. That’s how democracies go downhill. We have politicians in Washington, D.C. who are managing decay. We have Washington, D.C. special interest groups who have spent four million on nothing but attack ads.
“He will be the senator from the Fund for Growth. He’s in their pocket.”
Cardon argues that the semi-libertarian Flake isn’t conservative enough. Cardon has made an issue of Flake’s stint as a lobbyist, his abandonment of a promise to serve only two terms and Flake’s since-disavowed support for a comprehensive immigration reform plan that included some provision to allow people here a long time to legalize their status.
Cardon has called Flake a big spender based on his frequent congressional travel, despite Flake’s long crusade against congressional earmarks.
Flake has hit back with his own series of negative ads, including criticism of Cardon’s small stake in a of a chain of Subway stores after a federal probe found some workers didn’t have valid green cards or proof of citizenship.
The campaign has turned on such personal attacks in part because the two candidates disagree on so few actual issues. Both have taken positions on the right wing of their party, calling for radical cuts in federal spending and additional deep cuts in federal taxes.
Both have called for the immediate repeal of the Affordable Health Care Act and expressed superheated criticism of President Barack Obama.
The only whiff of a real policy difference stems from Flake’s support four years ago for a comprehensive bundle of policies designed to slow or stop illegal immigration. Senators McCain and Kyl also supported the plan, which included tougher border enforcement, a guest worker program and a way for some of the estimated 12 million people living in the country illegally now to eventually legalize their status. Flake has since said the country must first secure the border before doing anything else.
Cardon said Flake’s shift in position makes him a “flip-flopper” and a professional politician.
“We have to stop illegal immigration because it will destroy this country,” said Cardon. The solution includes building a fence on the border, deploying troops, enlisting local police to enforce immigration laws and to strictly enforce laws against hiring illegal immigrants, he said.
The meeting also drew nine other candidates for local offices and local elected officials.
Payson Unified School District board member Barbara Shepherd asked whether he would support continued cuts in federal funding for schools.
Cardon responded that he would like to eliminate the department of education and let local taxpayers keep the $68 billion the federal agency spends annually.
Payson Town Councilor Michael Hughes asked Cardon what he could do as a senator to help communities fight federal bureaucracies. As an example, he cited Payson’s long struggle to buy 300 acres from the U.S. Forest Service to build a university crucial to the town’s economy. The years-long process is currently stalled by the need to raise $400,000 to pay for an environmental assessment of the property, which Congress earmarked for sale a decade ago.
Cardon said he couldn’t fight the bureaucracy, but would fight to get rid of it altogether, which drew a round of applause from the