Republican Rep. Jeff Flake Tuesday won a bruising U.S. Senate fight against former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona.
Flake picked up 56 percent of the vote in Gila County and 50 percent statewide, in a race that grew increasingly bitter and personal as the polls showed a dead heat. He ended up with a roughly 90,000-vote margin, enough to ensure victory despite the 630,000 outstanding, uncounted provisional and early ballots.
Carmona drew 38 percent of the Gila County vote and 45 percent of the statewide vote. Despite a brilliant resume that included two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts as a Special Forces medic, training as a trauma surgeon, service as a decorated SWAT team member and a stint as Surgeon General in a Republican administration, Carmona couldn’t overcome the state’s Republican registration advantage. In the end, he pulled only 2 percent more votes statewide than President Barack Obama, who polled 44 percent statewide and 35 percent in Gila County.
The offspring of a pioneering Mormon family with deep roots in the White Mountains, Flake’s victory gives Rim Country close ties to the next U.S. Senator. He has relatives scattered throughout the region and a friendly relationship with many Rim Country political leaders, including Payson Mayor Kenny Evans, a Bishop in the Mormon Church. Evans strongly endorsed and supported Flake’s bid.
Flake built up a reputation as an anti-government, Libertarian-leaning reformer during his five terms in Congress. He crusaded against the Congressional practice of earmarking special projects without going through the normal budgeting process, refusing to seek home district earmarks.
He proved a staunch foe of most government spending, voting consistently for budgets that would slash both tax rates and domestic programs. He also consistently opposed environmental regulations.
At various times Flake voted a Civil Libertarian agenda as well. He also at one point championed comprehensive immigration reform, which included border security, a guest worker program and some process to legalize the status of longtime residents with good records.
He jettisoned some of those positions as he embraced Republican orthodoxy so he could lay claim to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Sen. Jon Kyl. He handily topped a tough-minded, well-funded primary challenge from Mesa businessman and fellow Mormon Wil Cardon, who challenged Flake’s conservative credentials on things like immigration reform.
Flake entered the general election race seemingly weakened and facing a fresh opponent with a dream resume. Although personally recruited to run by President Obama, Carmona took strikingly independent positions — at least rhetorically. He tried to capitalize on the growing cadre of Hispanic voters in the state, many alienated by the strident Republican focus on illegal immigration and energized by Carmona’s own Hispanic ancestry.
Money poured into the race, which at one time looked crucial in a Republican bid to seize control of the U.S. Senate. That hope evaporated on election night with a gain of four seats by the Democrats — and the Arizona senate seat in play for the first time in decades.
In the most recent spending reports, Flake reported raising $7.5 million and Carmona $5.7 million. Outside groups dumped more than $14 million more into the race on both sides. Flake got major assistance from the Club for Growth, a conservative lobbying group that has consistently pushed the Republican Party to the right by intervening in Republican primaries.
The polls showed that Carmona had pulled to a statistical dead heat, when the Flake campaign went harshly negative and personal.
The contest changed tone with a Flake ad that portrayed the decorated Carmona as a hot-headed sexist who frightened and intimidated his boss when he served as surgeon general, where he clashed with the Bush administration over the political suppression and editing of scientific reports.
Carmona fought back with endorsements from many other highpowered women with whom he had worked, but then blundered by making a joke on camera about the looks of a female CNN journalist.
The Carmona campaign hit back with tough attacks on Flake’s voting record and work as a lobbyist for mining companies. Many attacks centered on Flake’s voting record on veterans’ issues, his support for converting Medicare into a voucher program to buy private insurance and his support for abortion restrictions and other social issues.
Carmona’s use of film clips featuring strong praise for him from Republican Senators John McCain and Kyl offered when he was nominated for the post of surgeon general drew a furious reaction from the