Jeff Flake not weakened by costly primary fight, GOP asserts

2012-09-04T00:00:00Z 2012-09-18T19:17:58Z Jeff Flake not weakened by costly primary fight, GOP assertsBrady McCombs Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
September 04, 2012 12:00 am  • 

As Wil Cardon unleashed attack after attack on Jeff Flake in the U.S. Senate Republican primary, Democrats salivated over the prospect of Flake limping into the general election to face Richard Carmona.

Many Republicans were worried, too, including the man whose retirement opened the seat, Jon Kyl. When he and Sen. John McCain endorsed Flake, Kyl voiced concerns Cardon's tactics could hurt Flake's chances in the general.

The worry was premature. The anticipated Flake and Cardon nail-biter turned out to be a blowout. Flake won 69 percent of the vote to Cardon's 21 percent.

Republicans are touting Flake's big win as proof that Democratic speculation that Carmona has a chance to win is wishful thinking.

"The primary victory is a testament to what people think of Jeff Flake, and how tough a road it's going to be for Richard Carmona," said Jahen Wilcox, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

But Democrats say Flake's big win says more about Cardon being a marginal candidate than it does about Flake. With his compelling life story and proven independent thinking, Carmona still has a great shot to defeat Flake, they say.

"As voters get to know about his life experience and the kind of problem solving and leadership that he would bring to the Senate, he is going to do quite well," said Matt Canter of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "He has an inspiring story to tell, and his campaign is just starting to tell it."

The general election is Nov. 6. Early ballots go out on Oct. 11.

Dennis DeConcini was the last Democrat to win a U.S. Senate race in Arizona, and the state leans more Republican now. The 3.1 million registered voters are divided into thirds; Republicans lead with 36 percent of voters, followed by 33 percent independent voters and 30 percent Democrats.

Though he won big, Flake spent more than $4 million in the primary to fend off a furious barrage of attacks from Cardon, who spent nearly $8.8 million of his own money.

Carmona, meanwhile, was building his coffers without a primary opponent and had about $49,000 more than Flake through Aug. 8.

That may be the one tangible scar Flake carries over from the primary.

Republicans aren't worried about Flake having enough money. They point out he got a head start on Carmona in introducing himself statewide to voters who may not have known him prior to this election. Flake was known mainly in the old Congressional District 6 in the southeastern Phoenix metro area, where he served six terms.

"Flake's statewide name recognition is superior," said Chris Herstam, a lobbyist and former Republican lawmaker from Phoenix.

Carmona, who lives in Tucson, will have to work hard to make himself known across the state, said Tucson GOP pollster Margaret Kenski. Flake accomplished that in his primary campaign, Kenski said.

"He had a base and he worked well to expand it," Kenski said.

Herstam said Carmona is a great candidate with an excellent personal story, but the huge primary margin of victory shows why Flake is the clear favorite.

"I don't care how popular a candidate, when they get 70 percent of the vote, it's mighty impressive," Herstam said.

Canter said the more important indicator is the fact Flake struggled during the early stages of the primary against a candidate as weak as Cardon. The margin was shocking, conceded Democratic political strategist Bob Grossfeld of Phoenix, but he said it has no bearing on the general election.

Flake is telegenic and comes across well on TV, but his résumé and life story pale in comparison to Carmona's, Grossfeld said. The child of Puerto Rican immigrants, Carmona grew up poor in New York City and dropped out of high school. He went on to join the Army and became a decorated combat veteran, trauma surgeon, deputy sheriff and U.S. surgeon general.

"If you got a bunch of consultants in a room and said, 'Build a perfect candidate,' Carmona is what we would come up with," Grossfeld said.

Luis Heredia, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party, said Carmona has crossover appeal with voters, calling him a "battle-tested American," poking fun at Flake's primary TV ads painting himself as Arizona's "battle-tested conservative."

But Carmona's life story is secondary to voters' concerns about jobs and the economy, and Republicans like Flake have better solutions, said Tim Sifert, spokesman for the Arizona Republican Party.

Herstam, the former chief of staff under Republican Gov. Fife Symington, said Carmona will also be dragged down by Obama's unpopularity in the state. Flake and the Republicans have already begun trying to tie Carmona to Obama at every turn.

Grossfeld doesn't think the Obama connection will stick so easily to Carmona, who was an independent for 22 years before registering with the Democratic Party in November 2011.

Flake's own record in Congress will haunt him, Heredia said.

"Jeff Flake has a record that has not produced and served Arizona well," Heredia said. "He wants to fight an ideological battle without serving Arizona."

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or bmccombs@azstarnet.com On Twitter, @BradyMcCombs

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