When former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona makes his pitch for his Senate candidacy to Arizona voters, he does so as a veteran, lawman, doctor and reluctant Democrat.
He talks about his childhood as a poor kid playing stickball in Harlem. He mentions his service -- as an Army special forces soldier in Vietnam during which he won two Purple Hearts, as a deputy Pima County Sheriff on the U.S.-Mexico border, and as the nation’s top medical doctor under President George W. Bush.
Then, he tells the crowd that he thinks both political parties are on the wrong track.
“The people are saying they want better representation,” Carmona told about 50 people at a morning town hall in a North Phoenix community center Oct. 6, as he decried gridlock in Washington. “We have to re-establish civility in government. We have to re-establish statesmanship and stop hyperpartisanship.”
Carmona, 62, has parlayed his biography and bipartisan background into a competitive run against Representative Jeff Flake for the open U.S. Senate seat in Arizona being vacated by retiring Republican Jon Kyl. Carmona’s efforts have turned a race deemed safe for Republicans into one that could imperil the party’s chances of taking control of the chamber, which the Democrats now control 53-47.
Carmona, who is of Puerto Rican heritage, is benefiting from the increase in Latino voters and activism in the state, spurred by a backlash to immigration initiatives backed by Republican Governor Jan Brewer. She signed into law the nation’s toughest anti-immigration measure in 2010 and recently undermined a White House directive allowing some young immigrants to stay in the country by blocking them from getting state driver’s licenses.
Arizona’s Latino community also has been galvanized by opposition to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. A vocal proponent of cracking down on illegal immigration, Arpaio is facing a federal civil rights lawsuit over treatment of Latinos in local jails.
Democrats say the number of Latinos registered to vote has surged 51 percent since 2008. In 2008, Latinos accounted for 16 percent of those who cast ballots, according to exit polls.
A survey last week of Latino registered voters in Arizona by Latino Decisions, an advocacy group based in Seattle, Washington, showed that 75 percent said they would vote for Carmona, while 12 percent favored Flake and 13 percent were undecided.
“If the Hispanics do go out in force more than they normally do, then I think Carmona definitely has a chance to win,” Bruce Merrill, senior research professor at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University, said in a phone interview. “What’s got to happen for Carmona to win is he has to do better than Flake in the independent vote and get Hispanics out. His message seems pretty focused on the independents, and I think that’s pretty smart.”
Last week, outside political groups and both national parties upped their investment in the race, as recent polls showed a close race between Carmona and Flake even as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney remains favored to win Arizona in his bid for the White House.
Former President Bill Clinton led a rally in Tempe, Arizona, last night for Carmona as early voting is set to begin in the state today. A poll last week by Raleigh, North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling showed Carmona leading Flake 45 to 43 percent, within the survey’s 4-percentage-point margin of error.
“Democrats have been arguing all cycle this is a close race, but it was a little hard to believe,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Washington-based non-partisan Cook Political Report, which moved its rating on the race from lean Republican to toss-up on Oct. 4. “There was no real reason for it to be so close. Now, it is game on.”
Republicans still have a six-point registration advantage in Arizona and control every major statewide office, the legislature, both U.S. Senate seats and five of the state’s eight U.S. House seats. Flake, known in Washington for his opposition to earmarks -- spending pushed by lawmakers on local projects -- emerged as an early favorite.
Yet as Carmona built name recognition while unopposed in the Democratic primary, Flake was forced to spend his campaign funds and stress his conservative credentials to fend off a challenge in the race for the Republican nomination. Mesa businessman Wil Cardon spent millions of his own fortune to attack Flake as too weak on immigration and other issues.
Though Flake won the Aug. 28 contest with 69 percent of the vote, the victory cost him: He had just $1.7 million of the $5.3 million he raised on hand as of Aug. 8 -- slightly less than Carmona, who had raised a total of $2.9 million by that point, according to Federal Election Commission records.
The primary didn’t allow Flake “to introduce himself to a statewide ticket in a way that he probably wishes he could have,” said Chuck Coughlin, president of Phoenix-based Republican political consulting firm High Ground Public Affairs, whose recent poll found Carmona trailing Flake by three points, within the margin of error. “Jeff’s never run statewide before; he’s run from a very safe district. And Mr. Carmona’s personal narrative has already made him very competitive.”
In his talks to voters, Carmona portrays himself as a political outsider who eschews partisanship -- a tactic aimed at the one-third of Arizona voters who aren’t affiliated with either major political party.
It’s a position that fits Carmona, who says he was recruited by Kyl and Brewer to run for office as a Republican while he was serving as surgeon general. Declining those entreaties, he describes his decision to get into the Senate race as going back on active duty -- a calling he said he couldn’t ignore as conversations with friends seemed to revert back to the broken political system.
Then, he had to pick a political party.
“I’ve known my whole life that I am not a perfect fit in either party, because I am truly independent,” Carmona told Bloomberg News during an interview between town halls this past weekend. “I looked to see where Republicans are in my state on issues like women’s health, access to health, immigration issues. I couldn’t support what the state Republicans are doing.”
The Democratic Party “was a better fit, but it wasn’t perfect,” he said.
Carmona said he talked to Democrats across the country who assured him the party would welcome his issues-oriented political approach. He said he’d already made up his mind to run when President Barack Obama, who he’d met years earlier on CNN’s Larry King Show, called to urge him to make the commitment.
The phone call has emerged as the prime attack in Republican opposition to Carmona. Commercials from the Flake campaign call Carmona “Obama’s man in Arizona,” and say if he gets to Washington he’d be a “rubber stamp” for the president and congressional Democrats. Every recent press release on the race issued by the state Republican party makes the same charge.
Carmona rarely mentions Obama’s name, even as he talks about being recruited for surgeon general by Bush -- a relationship that turned rocky when Carmona accused the administration of trying to “water down” a report on the dangers of second-hand smoke, according to his testimony in July 2007 before a congressional panel.
In a recent television ad, Carmona says both parties are wrong on health care. He repeated the line at the North Phoenix town hall, before delving into an explanation on the need for better preventative care and for Americans to take responsibility for their own wellness to reduce medical costs.
He seeks similar middle ground on taxes, immigration and energy policy, and he told one audience member he refuses to consider hypothetical legislation. It’s a tactic that wins over some voters, while concerning others seeking specific policy positions.
“I don’t talk in sound-bites,” Carmona said after the town hall. “I do stand for something, but what I do stand for is not the extremist rhetoric that has brought us to near catastrophic consequences. I don’t think anybody wants that. I am a reasonable person, and I am looking for solutions.”
That’s exactly the message that Democrat Janice Brunson, 72 of Scottsdale, says she thinks is needed to win the state.
“He seems to know his issues and he speaks so reasonably about them and in a manner that is not offensive to hardly anybody,” Brunson said after the event.
That balance bothers Doug Smithe, a 49-year-old independent likely to support Romney for president -- just the kind of voter Carmona needs to convince to cross the partisan line.
The town hall was the second Carmona event Smithe went to as he’s trying to make up his mind. During the forum, he asked Carmona his position on coal-fired power plants in Northern Arizona. The candidate responded that he wanted a national energy policy established first. Afterward, Smithe tried to press Carmona about corporate responsibility for the obesity epidemic, and said Carmona answered him with a rhetorical question.
“Dr. Carmona has a very impressive biography -- this is a guy that is used to getting things done,” said Smithe, who added that he planned on making his final decision after watching debates between the candidates, the first of which was last night. “What I can’t get my head around is that he isn’t standing up and telling us exactly what the country needs to do from a policy standpoint.”