TUCSON, Ariz. — Democrats determined to turn Arizona from a red state to blue have cast their hopes on Richard Carmona, a former surgeon general in the Bush administration who is running to succeed Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).
The top ranks of Senate Democrats have all urged Carmona to join the race. But it was a rare personal call from President Obama that underscored the importance to Democrats that the party mount a show of strength in this historically conservative state.
Obama sees Arizona as a prime opportunity to pick up a state he lost in the 2008 race, and to prove that the Democratic Party’s message resonated beyond its strongholds in the Northeast and Midwest, regions that are losing population and votes.
If the party is to grow, it needs to increase its reliance on the Southwest, where Democrats see opportunities in the fast-growing Hispanic population turned off by much of the GOP’s rhetoric on immigration — especially in Arizona, where an illegal immigration crackdown has driven a wedge through the electorate.
And Democrats say Republican overreach in Arizona in recent years has alienated independents, creating the perfect climate for a Democratic coup. If winning in this conservative state is the goal, it’s easy to see how Carmona is Democrats’ dream candidate.
Carmona is positioning himself as the independent choice for an electorate disgusted by the focus on partisanship above solving problems. He points to his work as surgeon general as evidence he can find that sweet spot and help restore function to a dysfunctional body.
A child of indigent emigrants from Puerto Rico, Carmona entered the U.S. Army as a high school dropout and left a decorated Vietnam veteran. He became a trauma surgeon, a deputy sheriff, a SWAT team leader and eventually the nation’s top doctor, where he served under a Republican president.
“I think the time is right for somebody who is more balanced, more moderate. More centrist, and someone who has a pedigree that appeals to the masses,” Carmona told The Hill in his office in the foothills of Tucson’s Catalina Mountains.
On the wall behind him was a framed photograph with President George W. Bush, and above it, the Congressional Record from the day he was unanimously confirmed by the Senate in 2002.
It’s that independence that makes Carmona so attractive to Democrats, who know that crossover appeal will be key to Democratic prospects for flipping the seat.
Republicans have noted that Arizona hasn’t had a Democratic senator since the mid-1990s and voted only once for a Democratic president in the last 60 years — Bill ClintonBill ClintonTrump camp talking points: Mention Monica Lewinsky The Trail 2016: Miss Universe crashes campaign Obama to attend Shimon Peres funeral in Israel MORE in 1996.
But Democrats believe demographics will help them.
About 1.3 million Hispanics lived in Arizona at the time of the 2000 census; a decade later, that number had grown almost 30 percent, to just under 1.9 million.
Moreover, Hispanics prefer Obama to any of the GOP candidates by a ratio of 6-to-1, a Fox News Latino poll released Monday showed. And without Arizona Sen. John McCainJohn McCainOvernight Defense: Congress overrides Obama 9/11 veto | Pentagon breathes easy after funding deal | More troops heading to Iraq McCain comments won't derail Bergdahl case Senators already eyeing changes to 9/11 bill after veto override MORE (R-Ariz.) opposite Obama, Democrats believe this could be the year they pull the Grand Canyon State into the blue column.
“The Democratic opportunity to compete here is not some new phenomenon. It’s been here all along,” said Don Bivens, a Democrat challenging Carmona in the primary. “But there was significant overreach in the way our [Republican] public officials conducted themselves in recent years, and people are developing the courage to push back.”
Democrats are trying to build on the victories they had in 2008 in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. And if Arizona falls in 2012, they think they can move on to other Southwestern states including Texas, which would be the biggest prize in the region.
But, as Carmona’s campaign is discovering, it’s difficult to profess independence from the Democratic team when the president himself has urged you to don the jersey. Both Bivens and Rep. Jeff FlakeJeff FlakeObama defeat is Schumer victory Top GOP chairmen investigating foreign visa program Pence rallies GOP before final stretch MORE (R-Ariz.), who also is running to succeed Kyl, have used Carmona’s support from Washington Democrats to argue he’s far from an independent maverick.
“Do you really want a candidate whose strings are being pulled in Washington? I’ve seen a bit of that already,” Flake said in an interview at the historic Arizona Inn.
The primary between Bivens and Carmona represents a moment of reckoning for Democrats.
A former chairman of the state party and superdelegate for Obama, Bivens has established himself as a loyal party member and eloquent spokesman for its cause. That could ingratiate him in a primary, but it could be politically perilous in an Arizona statewide election.
Democrats will have to choose whether to bet on the tried-and-true liberal or take a gamble with a political unknown whose broad appeal could help Democrats prove that Arizona is well within their reach.
“Don [Bivens] was a candidate people were looking at more when there wasn’t a major player in the race,” said David Waid, a former Arizona Democratic Party chairman, noting that where there is the support of the White House and Senate Democrats, an infusion of campaign cash is likely to follow. “The momentum has surged dramatically. Most people are calling it a done deal.”
- This story was posted at 5 a.m. and has been updated.