GOP Senate hopeful looking at attack from right over immigration reform

Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) is brushing back criticism of his record on immigration as he embarks on a run for the seat of retiring Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), saying Tuesday that hits on his record from the right won’t stick.

Arizona conservatives have struck Flake hard in the past on the immigration issue, and it will undoubtedly come up in any Republican primary. Flake has supported efforts for comprehensive immigration reform in the past, teaming up with Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) in 2007 to introduce the STRIVE Act, a reform plan that included the creation of a temporary-worker program and a path to citizenship.

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“I have the most conservative district in the state and I’ve had primaries periodically on the immigration issue,” Flake told The Hill on Tuesday. “Arizona voters are very sophisticated on this issue. They know where I stand on this.”

Flake said any suggestion that he supports, or has ever supported, amnesty for illegal immigrants is nothing but a trumped-up charge his political opponents have tried to level against him in recent years.

“I’m sure some will try to allege that again,” Flake said. “But that doesn’t stick. When they look at what I’ve supported, I’ve voted for every border-security piece of legislation there has been. I just recognize that nearly half of those who are here didn’t sneak across the border. They came legally and have overstayed, and you can’t ignore that population.”

Flake didn’t reject his past support for the measure, saying, “You’ve got to have some mechanism that deals with those who are here illegally. We dealt with it before with a provision that required them to go home and register. But everything like that is on hold until we have better border security.”

Despite Flake’s status as the early front-runner and favorite of party insiders, several Arizona Republicans are still weighing Senate bids, including Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth and Rep. Trent Franks. If any of them decided to get into the race against Flake, they would likely run to the right — Arpaio and Hayworth on immigration, with Franks positioning himself as the strongest social-conservative voice in the race.

Arpaio is the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America” and has made his name as an anti-illegal-immigration crusader. His tactics are the subject of a federal probe.

Another one of Flake’s most ardent critics on immigration is likely to figure into the 2012 picture as well — Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce now appears to be eyeing a bid for Flake’s 6th district House seat. Pearce was a rumored Senate contender, but Republicans in the state say that a House run is a much safer bet for Pearce next year and that he is leaning that way.

In 2007, Pearce declared Flake a backer of “amnesty” for illegal immigrants due to Flake’s championing of the STRIVE Act, and weighed a primary challenge to Flake during the 2008 cycle. Pearce is now leading the charge to require Arizona hospitals to check a patient’s immigration status.

Last cycle, immigration was a key issue in Republican primary challenges to Sen. John McCain and Gov. Jan Brewer in Arizona. McCain ran to the right on the issue and easily beat Hayworth, while Brewer became a conservative hero on immigration after signing the state’s tough anti-illegal immigration law.

As for Franks, he told The Hill on Tuesday that he’s still “seriously considering” a bid for the Senate seat, noting that he and Flake have “legitimate differences” on certain issues.

Franks wouldn’t elaborate, saying he has the utmost respect for Flake and that “we’re both pretty conservative.” But one major break between Flake and the right came over “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Flake was one of just 15 House Republican who voted in favor of the repeal of the military’s controversial policy on homosexuals, and said Tuesday that it is not a vote he regrets.

“Arizona voters have a bit of a libertarian streak, an independent streak,” Flake said. “I think they appreciate a politician who isn’t lockstep in any one way.”

Flake, a staunch fiscal conservative and anti-earmarker, already has the backing of the Club for Growth, which has promised to fight tooth and nail against any GOP primary challenge. The Tea Party group FreedomWorks also endorsed Flake on Monday.

McCain told The Hill on Tuesday that he hasn’t yet made an endorsement in the race, though Flake said that the two have spoken and that he would welcome McCain’s support.

“I’m not endorsing anyone yet,” McCain said, noting that he has great respect and admiration for Flake. The two have worked closely together on efforts to ban earmarks.

McCain did not commit to endorsing anyone before the primary. “I don’t know,” he said. “It depends. I don’t even know who all is running yet.”