Senate candidate Carmona has Dems seeing blue in red-state Arizona

Arizona isn’t the most obvious opportunity for a Democratic pickup in the Senate.

Mitt Romney has posted a solid lead on President Obama in nearly every poll in the red-leaning state, but Democratic nominee Richard Carmona is giving the party hope it can win retiring Sen. Jon Kyl’s (R-Ariz.) seat.

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Carmona, a former surgeon general nominated by George W. Bush and confirmed unanimously by the Senate, was personally asked by President Obama to run.

His campaign has largely centered on his claim that he’ll be a bipartisan reformer, unbeholden to any party — while his opponent, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), has attempted to portray him as a rubber stamp for Obama’s policies.

In a sit-down with The Hill last week, Carmona emphasized his independence, asserting that the phone call he received from Obama recruiting him to run was not the product of any friendship between the two. “We are not friends,” he insisted, “I met him once when he was a junior senator about eight or nine years ago.” 

The political neophyte repeatedly mentioned his friends from both sides of the aisle, including unnamed members of the Republican leadership he became acquainted with during his time as surgeon general.

But on a number of issues — immigration, healthcare reform and the tax debate — Carmona expressed support for the position generally held by Democrats in Congress.

On immigration, Carmona reasserted his previous support for a DREAM Act and a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. That’s in contrast to the position taken by many Republicans, who see Arizona’s immigration law — one of the strictest in the nation — as a model for the country.

Carmona said that his experience working as a police officer on the border had taught him that the Arizona law might not work elsewhere.

“The fact is, whatever we do in Arizona has to be applicable to a larger nation,” he said, citing the illegal immigrants in the U.S. from countries other than Mexico.

And though he’s said before that both sides didn’t quite get it right on healthcare reform — most recently in a television ad where he stated that “Republicans and Democrats both got it wrong” — Carmona was unable to name a specific Republican proposal he supported on healthcare. He did say, however, that the Affordable Care Act didn’t go far enough in expanding preventive care, and that he believes it’s not sustainable in the long run, so further reforms are needed.

“When I look at the Affordable Care Act, I have been critical because I think there are some parts I am concerned [about]: The sustainability over a long period of time, the fact that we need more prevention in the system — because that’s where our biggest costs are, in preventable disease,” he said.

“I am all for this,” Carmona added, indicating his support for healthcare for all Americans, “but as a senator I am happy to sit down with my colleagues and say, OK, let’s make it sustainable, let’s get a bit of a business plan.”

Carmona hasn’t yet offered specifics on what that business plan would entail, and didn’t during the interview. But he did offer a look at how his time as surgeon general would inform the way he’d work if elected to office.

He explained how, as surgeon general, he and his staff would form “coalitions of reasonable people” that would rally support around a particular issue he was working to solve in Congress.

“I didn’t see Ds or Rs,” he said. “I looked to see who was — what my team would call it, who are the godfathers and godmothers, of the 535 who serve in Congress and the Senate, who have an affinity for this topic.”

Carmona said that these “godfathers and godmothers” would typically coalesce around a project because of the good it would do for their constituents. But in a gridlocked Congress resistant to earmarks — and battling over topics that are far less bipartisan than heart disease or mental health — such coalitions are tougher to form.

Carmona admitted that “you’re never going to get Congress to hold hands and do kumbaya all the time,” but that those coalitions need to happen if Washington is going to move forward with a solution to the nation’s financial woes.

He said, however, that if he were in the Senate right now he’d support the position held by most Democrats to extend the George W. Bush-era tax rates for the lower and middle classes, while possibly letting them expire for the highest wage-earners.

“I personally would favor extending [the Bush-era tax cuts]. I would extend it certainly for the poor and for the middle class. I would be willing to enter into discussion to say, people making over $250 or $300 or $500 [thousand] could pay, and you know, I’m a high wage-earner, and if I had to do that to help out for the next year, OK, I’ll do that, but we have to stop putting Band-Aids on a broken system,” he said, adding that long-term tax reform was necessary to fix the system for good.