Only in an Arizona Republican primary could you base a campaign on the assertion that Rep. Jeff Flake isn’t conservative enough.
But that’s exactly the argument Mesa investor Wil Cardon has made in his attempt to deny six-term Mesa Congressman Jeff Flake the nomination to succeed retiring Sen. Jon Kyl.
Cardon has put about $7.5 million of his own money into the campaign. He has poured about $4 million into an advertising blitz mostly criticizing Flake for previous support of comprehensive immigration reform, back-peddling on a promise to serve only two terms, his lobbying efforts for a mining company and his vote to continue making payments on the national debt.
Flake has raised about $5 million, but also benefitted from independent expenditures by the Club for Growth political action committee, a Super PAC that has spent most of its money helping conservative Republicans kill off moderates in primaries across the country. Founded by wealthy Wall Street investors, the Club for Growth has contributed $583,000 to Flake’s campaign and made additional independent expenditures.
Other major corporate contributors to Flake’s campaign include Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, ($50,500), US Airways ($41,500), Knight Transportation ($30,500) and Marriott International ($27,250), according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which maintains a Web site that publishes campaign finance reports.
The Center’s report on Flake lists the top industries contributing to his campaign as party and conservative organizations, retirees, congressional leadership PACS, the mining industry and the real estate industry. All told, PACs have contributed 13 percent of his fund and small contributions account for about 11 percent.
However, those campaign statements provide less insight than in the past, since recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions have cleared the way for unlimited, undisclosed campaigns to support individual candidates by corporations and political action committees, so long as they don’t directly coordinate with the candidate. Many campaigns have done end runs around those requirements by holding political retreats, hiring shared consulting firms and other approaches that have usually allowed for easy overlap.
The other candidates in the race on the Republican side haven’t so far made much of an impression. That includes former Youngtown Mayor Bryan Hackbarth, who has only raised about $27,000 and conservative radio talk show host Clair Van Steenwyk, who has raised about $17,000.
The contest has focused mostly on Cardon’s effort to prevent what initially looked like a Republican coronation of Flake. Both come from pioneering Mormon families with deep roots.
Cardon drew sharp criticism from the Republican establishment for his self-funded challenge, for fear he would damage the presumptive nominee for the general-election campaign against the sole Democratic candidate – former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, also a Tucson trauma surgeon and a decorated medic, SWAT team officer.
The Republican establishment has lined up behind Flake, who has collected endorsements from Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl to Tea Party darling former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
But Cardon has run his maverick campaign, drawing support from the Tea Party wing of the Republican grass roots, with his outspoken stance on sealing the border and drastic cuts in federal spending.
The former head of the Goldwater Institute conservative think tank in Phoenix, Flake spent a decade in congress crusading against congressional earmarks – the practice of slipping pork barrel projects for the home district into big spending bills. The practice grew session by session as it evolved into a way for the leadership in both parties to round up votes for crucial bills. The price tag grew to about $50 billion annually — a drop in the federal spending bucket — but a source of embarrassing highways like the Alaskan “Bridge to Nowhere,” a $400 million bridge to connect an island with 50 residents to the mainland. For years, Flake took to the floor of the house to object to earmarks, often to the embarrassment and irritation of colleagues on both sides of the aisle. He also refused to ask for earmarks to benefit his district, to the sometimes-intense irritation of his constituents.
But in part as a result of years of effort by both Flake and Sen. McCain, Congress eventually eschewed earmarks – which some political observers has contributed to the current state of deadlock – since House and Senate leaders no longer can easily slip pet projects into key bills to enlist support.
Cardon has dismissed Flake’s anti-spending crusade by pointing out that Flake has spent heavily on congressional travel – and that he voted along with the House leadership to raise the ceiling on the national debt.
But mostly, Cardon has blasted Flake for abandoning a pledge to serve only two terms in the House and for four years ago supporting a comprehensive immigration reform plan embraced by both McCain and Kyl that would have substantially increased spending on border security, but also established a guest worker program and some means for people living here illegally with jobs and clean records to legalize their status. A revolt by the Republican rank and file killed the plan, which also had the support of then-President George Bush.
In speeches in Payson, Flake advocated additional deep cuts in taxes and spending and the wholesale repeal of federal regulations. He has strongly supported Republican Vice Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan’s budget, adopted by House Republicans without any Democratic support and repeatedly buried in the Democratic-controlled Senate. That budget includes some $6 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years focused on domestic programs like Medicaid, Medicare, welfare, education and other domestic programs. The impact on the deficit was cushioned in the proposal by some $4 trillion in tax cuts, which included lowering the top rate from about 36 percent to 25 percent and collapsing other lower rates down to 10 percent. The plan would have raised the retirement age to 67 and turned Medicare into an insurance premium subsidy with a cap well below the current rate of medical inflation for future retirees. The Medicaid program (known as AHCCCS in Arizona) would become a block grant to the states, with deep reductions in federal support. The budget assumes the repeal of almost all of the provisions of the Affordable Health Care Act, which would provide subsidized insurance to an estimated 34 million Americans and impose fines on people who don’t buy insurance.
The House budget Flake supported would have reduced federal spending as a share of the Gross National Product from 23 percent to 14 percent, with dramatic reductions in almost all federal programs except the military.
Flake has also opposed any restrictions on guns, ammunition or magazines, despite a string of recent shootings. He also favors the eliminating both the federal Department of Energy and the Department of Education.
In one appearance in Payson, he also agreed with a questioner who wanted a return to state legislatures picking U.S. senators instead of the voters at large, a system that changed in 1912 with the adoption of the 17th Amendment. Flake said he preferred that system, but that he had no plans to push for it and couldn’t imagine congress, the states and the voters approving a repeal of the 17th Amendment.
Flake has also sharply criticized federal bureaucracy and environmental laws, blaming Forest Service inaction for the devastation of events like the Wallow Fire last summer, the largest fire in state history. He recalled touring the area burned and driving a long a road that divided an area thinned to reduce fire danger on one said and an area left unthinned to provide thick, forested habitat for the endangered Mexican Spotted Owl. “On the left side where they had thinned, the fire had dropped to the ground. On the right side they left for the spotted owl — it was a moonscape. No trees and no spotted owls,” said Flake. “It was the starkest reminder of what forest management really needs.”
Flake said the federal government continues to smother the private sector, squander taxpayer money and suppress economic growth with regulations.
As one example, he cited the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to require the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station and other power plants in the Southwest to adopt expensive new technology to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, soot and nitrogen oxides. Power plants that could face costly new requirements include the Cholla, Coronado and Apache generating stations.
The regulations are intended to reduce the haze that cuts by 30 percent visibility at recreation sites like the Grand Canyon. Visitors to the Grand Canyon pump an estimated $721 million into local economies annually. However, Flake said the EPA’s own estimates say that the $1.1 billion worth of pollution control upgrades might not make a visible dent in the problem.
“These federal agencies aren’t responsible to anyone. They’re currently not beholden to Congress because we’re not passing a budget that allows us to direct those agencies how to spend those funds,” said Flake.
“We’re closer to the edge of the cliff than we’ve ever been,” said Flake. “Unfortunately, Congress tends to not act only when we’re halfway over the edge staring into the abyss. I don’t think we know where that edge of the cliff is. We could have a treasury auction and there are just no buyers — and China says, ‘we have enough of your debt.’” He said the nation’s $16 trillion deficit will soon reach the “point of no return” that will produce an economic meltdown.
“Pretty soon we’re going to be where Greece is,” he said.
Flake said Republicans and Democrats alike created the problem by letting federal spending spin out of control and promising benefits for Medicaid, Social Security and Medicare the nation could not afford to keep.
“We were headed for this fiscal cliff long before the Democrats took the wheel, but they hit the accelerator,” said Flake. “This is a problem both parties got us into.”
Although Cardon has criticized Flake as one of the professional politicians and Washington insiders who has created the current economic crisis – he hasn’t laid out very many sharply contrasting positions with Flake, beyond his opponent’s since-renounced support for term limits and comprehensive immigration reform. Instead, Cardon has stressed his background in investment and business, which he says is shared by only 15 of the 100 U.S. senators.
“We have to change the composition of Congress. 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.”
He wants to eliminate the federal Department of Education, use U.S. Special Forces to seal the border with Mexico and eliminate congressional pensions and medical benefits. He also is collecting 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.
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.
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.
“Look how far experienced politicians have gotten us: $16 trillion in debt. You can’t be a successful member of a failed organization,” said the Mesa businessman. “Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity is to do the same thing over again and expect a different result. We need outsiders, not insiders.”
Cardon, whose grandfather started a chain of gas stations including one in Payson, recalls summers at the family cabin in Christopher Creek. Cardon’s platform calls for tax cuts, a balanced budget, no military cuts, fewer regulations, more federal projects in Arizona, the repeal of recent health care reforms, free trade, outlawing abortions, banning gay marriage and tough restrictions on immigration.
But Cardon insists Flake neglected the bread and butter needs of his district and shifted back toward the Republican center on issues like immigration reform to run for senate.
“Jeff Flake is a nice guy — but no one knows where he is on immigration. He’s for open borders and amnesty and now he’s running for senate so he’s not for that after all. He’s for lower taxes, but proposes an energy tax. Some Republican candidates have lost their way,” said Cardon. “Your actions have to match your rhetoric.”
Cardon has headed the family business for the past 10 years, which includes buying and selling land for development, gas stations and other businesses. A Mormon and father of five, Cardon played football at Brigham Young University and Stanford University before going on to get his MBA from Harvard.
“I’m with Vince Lombardi: Get back to basics. We need people who are consistent and reliable and principled. We don’t need a U.S. Senator — we need an Arizona senator. We need people who will pay attention to the state and at the end of the day are willing to lead and fight for the state. Jeff Flake has been anything but someone who will fight for the state.”