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Can Carmona Take Arizona?

September 30, 2012

We think of Arizona as a pretty red state, what with Barry Goldwater, Jan Brewer, Joe Arpaio, and all that. Republicans have controlled the Arizona state Senate since 1992 and the state House since 1962.

But Arizona is not all that deep-red. In its 100-year history as a state, a large majority of Arizona’s governors have been Democrats, most recently Janet Napolitano, until she resigned to join the Obama Administration in 2009. Democrats have held Arizona’s Senate seats the majority of the time – most recently Dennis DeConcini until 1995, and most durably Carl Hayden from 1927 to 1969. Arizonans last voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 1996, giving Bill Clinton a plurality of its votes.

Still, we do think of Arizona as a red state, and when the Obama campaign made an investment last April in a run at Arizona, there was a fair amount of eye-rolling among the punditocracy. The eye-rolling was probably justified: RealClearPolitics has Mitt Romney leading President Obama by a comfortable 7.3 percent.

Meanwhile, while no one was watching, Democratic Senate candidate Richard Carmona has made the race to succeed retiring Republican Jon Kyl into a toss-up. September polling shows a close race:  Public Policy Polling has Carmona behind by one point; the ever-right-leaning Rasmussen has Carmona down by six.

Although the race has gotten relatively little national attention, it is surely one of the most interesting.  Carmona was George W. Bush’s surgeon general from 2002 to 2006. He is a Puerto Rican raised in Harlem and educated at the Bronx Community College. He earned his GED in the Army, serving in Vietnam as a special forces medic.

Carmona’s opponent, Representative Jeff Flake, is an ardent fiscal conservative without the hypocrisy of his colleagues. Although he maintains 100 percent ratings from the American Conservative Union and the National Right to Life Committee, he has made a pest of himself opposing earmarks requested by Democrats and Republicans alike. He has been among the least pork-indulgent members of Congress, unlike so many alleged small-government conservatives who pig out at the pork barrel.

But it’s when you look beyond fiscal issues that Flake gets really interesting. He favors a “path to citizenship” for illegal aliens. His path is pretty narrow, but it’s not the absolutist position that is so prevalent on today’s right. He turned against the war in Iraq by 2008, and he favors normalization of relations with Cuba. Although Flake voted in 2004 and 2006 for a constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex marriage, he voted in 2010 to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Less amusing is the fact that Flake was elected in 2000 on a pledge to stay in office for no more than three terms, a promise he very predictably broke precisely six years later.

With Arizona’s retiree population, you might expect a Democratic Senate candidate to make a huge issue of Medicare, but it does not appear that Carmona is doing that. Still, one way or the other, Carmona is making a run of it. His campaign Web site touts the results of some polls, including some partisan polls that most analysts don’t take account of, indicating that the race is eminently winnable.

Color me skeptical. Still, I can’t help but marvel at the possibility of replacing the stalwart conservative Republican whip, Planned Parenthood-demonizing, President Obama-obstructing Jon Kyl, with a moderate Democrat. And the idea of Arizona electing a Puerto Rican Senator is just too good to pass up.

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