By Pamela Powers Hannley
When long-time Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyl announced his impending retirement in February 2011, the chances of a Democrat filling that seat seemed so remote that most news stories—including this one from Politico—only mentioned the Republican heir-apparent, six-term Congressman Jeff Flake.
Sixteen months later, Democratic challenger and former Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona is in a statistical dead heat with Flake. Carmona is trailing by only 2 percentage points in a poll that has a 3.5 percent margin of error. The poll, conducted by Public Policy Polling, oversampled registered Independents, the second largest group of registered voters in Arizona, after Republicans.
Carmona, a registered Independent until he switched parties last fall to run on the Democratic ticket, has been campaigning ardently for the Senate seat since December 2011. On Saturday, Carmona and Senator Al Franken—who Carmona dubs his “new best friend”—traversed the state making six campaign appearances to tell Carmona’s street-kid-to-surgeon-general life story and raise money for the campaign.
The marathon day ended in an upscale midtown Tucson backyard where the pair was greeted enthusiastically by more than 200 party activists, Southern Arizona elected officials, and candidates running for state and local offices.
With speakers blasting “My Sharona”, it was a Democratic Party love fest in the bluest city in an ever more purple state. Basked in the orange glow of the Tucson sunset, Democratic Mayor Jonathan Rothschild was all smiles as he welcomed Franken and hometown boy Carmona to the stage.
In his address, Carmona focused on his background and his policy stances. The contrast between Carmona and Flake could not be more pronounced. Carmona bills himself as an independent outsider who will serve the people of Arizona, as he did as Surgeon General. He often says that he learned early on in his Washington, DC stint that he was there not to serve either political party (or President George W. Bush, who appointed him); he was there to serve the American public and be the “people’s doctor”. Flake, on the other hand, is the former executive director for the right-wing think tank the Goldwater Institute, a former lobbyist, and a current six-term member of the US House of Representatives. While Carmona campaigns on working both sides of the aisle to get things done, Flake has voted repeatedly with Republican obstructionists in Congress.
Carmona has been forthright in speaking out publicly on issues that some politicians would shy away from—like true immigration reform, the DREAM Act, and the Republicans’ War on Women. His biggest round of applause on Saturday was when he affirmed a woman’s right to choose and touted access to affordable healthcare, including contraception coverage. In contrast, Flake voted for the Blunt amendment, which would have allowed employers to opt out of contraception coverage and voted against the Affordable Care Act. It’s not surprising that Planned Parenthood has given Flake a rating of 8 (out of a possible 100 points) and has endorsed Carmona.
Franken sprinkled his speech with his usual dry humor—saying that Carmona reminded him of his wife, except that his wife was not a SWAT team member, never earned a purple heart, and wasn’t US Surgeon General—or even a medical doctor. What Franken was referring to was his wife’s and Carmona’s humble beginnings and the public education opportunities that helped them succeed. Calling him a “rock star” candidate, Franken charged the audience with helping Carmona by volunteering, by writing checks, and by telling their friends and neighbors about him.
Although the former comedian gave the crowd a few laughs, Franken’s message was serious: if Democrats want this Senate seat back, they will need an all-out, on-the-ground effort to overcome Flake’s name recognition and money.