Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jeff Flake brought his already year-old campaign to Payson Saturday to take advantage of a warm endorsement from Payson Mayor Kenny Evans in front of a Rim Club meeting room full of Rim Country leaders.
The libertarian-leaning congressman with deep Arizona roots and a pioneer Mormon heritage hopes to parlay his ultra-conservative political ratings and his long fight against congressional earmarks into a chance to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Jon Kyl. He faces opposition in the primary and a likely general election challenge by former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona.
Flake called for repeal of health care reforms supported by President Barack Obama, decried the inaction of the Democratic-controlled Senate, and embraced budget proposals that would partially privatize Medicare, turn AHCCCS into a block grant to the states, slash taxes on businesses and the wealthy while cutting federal spending.
“If we have the right leadership, we can turn this around,” Flake said. We can ensure that our children and our grandchildren have the same opportunities we did.”
Evans introduced him as “my good friend” and praised Flake as one of the few political leaders with the courage to take even unpopular stands. To illustrate the point, Evans recalled his first encounter with the then-freshmen congressman when Evans served as head of the Arizona Farm Bureau. Flake then represented a district heavily dependent on federal crop subsidies. Yet Flake voted against crop subsidies on the grounds they distorted free markets at the expense of taxpayers.
Evans said Flake based his vote on convictions rather than calculations.
Preliminary polls so far offer Flake front-runner status, although few voters have yet focused on the August primary — much less the November general election. Three different head-to-head polls give him just over half the Republican vote, with one-third of the voters still undecided.
Early polls also show Flake with a decisive advantage over his two potential Democratic challengers, although Dr. Carmona remains within striking distance in some polls.
Flake’s chief problem right now remains former Vice Admiral Carmona, who served as U.S. Surgeon General during the Bush administration from 2002 to 2004. Carmona left after criticizing the administration for suppressing scientific reports for political reasons. As surgeon general, Carmona crusaded against second-hand tobacco smoke despite pressure to water down his report. The Tucson surgeon was registered as an independent when he decided to seek the Democratic nomination. Born in New York of Puerto Rican descent, Carmona is a combat-decorated Vietnam War veteran and a Special Forces medic, with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. He also worked as a sheriff’s deputy during which he narrowly escaped death in a shootout. He also ran the Pima County health system and taught medicine at the University of Arizona.
On Saturday, Flake talked about the struggles of his pioneering ancestors in a wild Arizona territory. “We don’t have nearly the challenges now as those who came before us,” he said at one point, after telling the story of the outlaw who killed his great-great uncle, leaving his nine children without a father. The same outlaw gravely wounded his great-great-grandfather, who drew his gun and killed the outlaw.
Flake hung his appeal on his long effort to convince his fellow congressmen to give up earmarks, funding for projects stuck into often unrelated bills without the normal budget hearings.
Earmark spending peaked at perhaps $60 billion annually, with defenders saying earmarks allowed representatives to help their home districts and legislative leaders to cobble together support for their bills. However, Flake refused to ask for earmarks for his congressional district and each year took to the floor to criticize earmarks requested by his colleagues, which at one point cost him his seat on the powerful House Judiciary Committee.
Opponents in the primary like Mesa businessman Wil Cardon have criticized Flake for spending more time pursuing national headlines than landing job-producing projects for his home district.
But Flake said voters must “send to Washington people not afraid to cast a very lonely vote.”
However, Flake has retreated from his earlier decision to challenge Republican Party orthodoxy on the issue of immigration. Several years ago, he joined with Arizona Sen. John McCain and others to champion comprehensive immigration reform proposed by then-president, George Bush. That package of bills would have sharply increased the amount spent on patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border, but would have also provided for a guest worker program and a way for many of the 11 million people in the country illegally to change their status without leaving the country and waiting years to re-enter. However, the package failed largely as a result of an outcry against giving people here illegally “amnesty.”
On Saturday, Flake said he still believes in a comprehensive approach, but now realizes that the government must secure the border before voters will tolerate other reforms.
Flake also hopes that a Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate would lead to the repeal of the Federal Health Care Reform Act which, starting in 2014, will require everyone to have health insurance or pay a fine.
The reforms derided by Republicans as “ObamaCare” would fund a dramatic expansion of the number of people who could qualify for coverage by the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, set up exchanges for people to buy regulated private insurance policies with limited overhead and no exclusion based on pre-existing diseases. The system would offer one-stop shopping for insurance coverage, with subsidies for premiums charged by privately run insurance plans based on income.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the reforms will reduce the number of Americans without medical insurance from perhaps 60 million to more like 25 million. However, it may also prompt many employers to drop medical coverage for low-income workers, shifting many of them to the expanded AHCCCS plans or private plans bought with subsidies through the health exchanges.
Flake said Congress must simply repeal the whole package and start over with changes that will lower the cost of health insurance based on market forces.
For instance, he advocates letting people deduct all of their health costs and premiums from their income before calculating their income taxes. That would effectively reduce the cost of health insurance premiums by 10 or 20 percent for taxpayers who pay those effective income tax rates. The Internal Revenue Service already allows businesses to deduct employee health care costs.
Flake also advocated repealing restrictions that prevent health insurance companies from offering policies across state lines. That could increase the number of policies consumers could choose from. However, consumer advocates worry about a “race to the bottom” with poorly-regulated, bare-bones polices in some states driving out more comprehensive policies. The federal health care reforms do provide a way for insurance companies to effectively operate across state lines through the insurance exchanges, but Republican critics maintain the reforms still include too many restrictions.
Flake also advocated comprehensive medical malpractice reform as an alternative to the reforms supported by the Democrats. Various independent analysis have put the annual savings of tort reform at $30 billion to $50 billion annually — or 5 to 7 percent of the cost of the $2 trillion health care bill.