The battle for the U.S. Senate race pivoted to a high-stakes general election matchup this year in the face of Congressman Jeff Flake’s slaughter of challenger Wil Cardon in the Republican primary.
The unopposed Democratic nominee, former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, wasted no time opening the general election campaign, with a meet-and-greet session slated during a swing through Payson on Sunday, Sept. 2.
Flake racked up 69 percent of the Republican vote in Gila County, compared to 23 percent for Cardon, a Mesa businessman and investor who poured more than $7.5 million into his own campaign.
The two other Republican candidates, radio host Claire Van Steenwyk and former Youngtown mayor, Bryan Hackbarth, barely registered in Gila County — picking up 3 to 5 percent of the vote each.
The Gila County results mirrored the statewide tally, where Flake picked up 69 percent of the vote and Cardon just 21 percent.
The planned Sunday appearance by Carmona represents his first appearance in Rim Country in what promises to be an intense, condensed general election campaign for a seat that could decide the partisan balance of power in the U.S. Senate.
Polls show Flake and Carmona in a dead heat for the general election, perhaps reflecting the damage done to Flake in the sometimes intense and negative Republican primary fight. Cardon’s effort to portray the libertarian Flake as not conservative enough lifted him initially, but wilted as the party establishment united behind Flake.
Flake on Wednesday issued a statement saying “I’d like to thank Arizona’s Republican primary voters for trusting me with the nomination. I’d also like to thank all our supporters and volunteers for their hard work and dedications, my primary opponents for running strong campaigns focused on the issues. Most of all, I want to thank my family for all of their sacrifice and understanding the past year and a half. Moving onto the general election, the stakes couldn’t be higher and the choice before Arizonans couldn’t be clearer. I can’t wait to debate the issues.”
Flake has represented a Phoenix-based congressional district for nearly a decade, making a name for himself as an outspoken critic of congressional pork barrel earmarking. In his bid to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl he amassed endorsements from the party hierarchy in the state.
Cardon attacked him for working for a time as a lobbyist, relying heavily on support from the out-of-state Super PAC the Club for Growth, violating a promise to serve only three terms and for having previously supported comprehensive immigration reforms that would have included opening a path to citizenship for people with good records and jobs. His previous moderation on immigration policy hurt him in the Republican primary, but his sharp shift to the right to get past Cardon could burden him in the general election.
The Democrats have rallied behind Carmona, a former Independent with a glittering resumé and one of the most prominent Hispanic candidates in the country. He has stuck to the pragmatic middle in almost all of his positions, including immigration. He has called for greater border security and enforcement of sanctions against employers who hire illegal immigrants, but also supported the Obama administration’s recent decision to implement an impromptu “Dream Act,” allowing many people without legal status raised and educated in the U.S. to remain legally.
Polls show that few Arizona voters know much about Carmona, who won two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts in combat tours in Vietnam, served as a police officer in Tucson, worked as a nurse and paramedic before becoming a trauma surgeon. Appointed as U.S. Surgeon General by President George Bush, Carmona came into conflict with the administration for alleged political interference with scientific reports.
Carmona has made it a point to criticize Democratic budget proposals and partisanship, but generally takes starkly contrasting positions from Flake, who ranks as one of the most fiscally conservative members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
For instance, Flake supports the immediate repeal of the Affordable Health Care Act, while Carmona has welcomed it as an important expansion of health insurance that still fails to address the crucial underlying cost issues.
Flake has repeatedly supported the House Republican budget drafted by Vice Presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan. That budget includes a plan to turn the AHCCCS program that provides coverage to 30 percent of Gila County residents into a block grant to the states with substantially less federal funding. The budget plan would also raise the retirement age to 67 and turn Medicare for future recipients into an insurance voucher support plan. Independent experts have estimated the plan would significantly increase out-of-pocket expenses for Medicare recipients.
Carmona has opposed that budget and instead expressed cautious support for Democratic budget proposals that would raise income tax rates in the upper income taxpayers to avert cuts in domestic spending.
Carmona also moved quickly into general election mode, anticipating the torrent of Super PAC money likely to flow into the state, with the makeup of the U.S. Senate in the balance.
Carmona on Tuesday asked Flake to swear off support from the anonymous donors of Super PACs. Flake refused.
And we’re off the races.