While he was encouraged to run by President Barack Obama, Democrat Richard Carmona spent the official first day of his Senate race against Republican U.S. Representative Jeff Flake touting endorsements from relatives of Senator Barry Goldwater.
A press briefing yesterday with Goldwater’s daughter and granddaughter came as Carmona, who was President George W. Bush’s surgeon general, fights Flake’s attempts to cast him as a Democratic “rubber stamp” in a state favoring Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee. On Aug. 28, Flake clinched his party’s nomination to replace retiring Senator Jon Kyl.
“Carmona’s only hope is to get people to split their tickets,” said Tom Jensen, director of Raleigh, North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling, whose Arizona survey last month had Carmona tied with Flake while Romney led Obama 52 percent to 41 percent. “If Flake can get people not to do that because they dislike Obama so much, that is going to help his prospects.”
In Arizona, as in other states where Romney has the upper hand, Democrats are trying to divert attention from the top of the ticket to their individual candidacies as Republicans tie them to the president. Jensen points to Senate races in Montana, Missouri and North Dakota, where Democratic candidate Heidi Heitkamp made headlines in May for overtly criticizing Obama.
“Carmona is in the class of races where he wants a personal race rather than a partisan race,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor at the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.
Carmona’s life story makes him a “dream candidate” for Democrats in Arizona, Gonzales said. A Latino who served in the Vietnam War, Carmona went to medical school, became a heart surgeon, served as a deputy sheriff and was the nation’s highest-ranking medical officer under a Republican president.
He may be the only Democratic candidate promoting his connection to Bush, Gonzales said.
“Carmona is trying to turn typical liabilities into political assets,” Gonzales said. “I would have a tough time finding another candidate mentioning Bush.”
Carmona released a new advertisement describing his military experience this week as Flake began his general-election push with an ad and website playing up the connection between Carmona and Obama.
“Richard Carmona is Obama’s hand-picked candidate for Arizona, and he shares the president’s agenda,” Flake said after winning his party’s primary, according to the Associated Press. “And I don’t think it is the agenda Arizonans want.”
Carmona received a telephone call from Obama about running -- one of many conversations he had with many people, according to Andy Barr, a spokesman for the candidate. In the past, Carmona, who had been an independent, was recruited by Republicans to run for governor and for Congress, Barr said.
“Congressman Flake knows he can’t run on his record, he can’t run on the issues,” Barr said. Carmona’s “record shows he will be an independent, centrist voice for Arizona.”
Flake enters the general election as the front-runner. The Rothenberg Political Report rates the race as “Lean Republican” while the Cook Political Report casts it as “Likely Republican.”
Still, it remains to be seen how Carmona performs as a general-election candidate and how bruised Flake is from the primary. Flake defeated businessman Wil Cardon, who spent millions of dollars of his own money to paint Flake as a flip-flopper and as not tough enough on issues such as immigration.
“He hurt Jeff Flake, which will not be good for the general election,” Kyl, a Republican who has endorsed Flake, told the Arizona Republic newspaper.
Though Flake easily defeated Cardon, 69 percent to 21 percent, the race drove up negative perceptions among voters and forced him to spend a lot of money, said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington.
“I think this race needs two or three weeks to see how it shapes up,” Duffy said. The stakes for Republicans, who have held the seat since Kyl took office in 1995, are high in their battle to take control of the chamber: “If they lose Arizona, they aren’t winning the majority -- not even close.”