Republican Rep. Jeff Flake will get his chance as a senator to faithfully carry out former Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater’s libertarian-leaning conservative principles, even at the price of potentially alienating GOP colleagues. Flake beat Democrat Richard Carmona, a former U.S. surgeon general, in a nail-biter originally considered an easy race for Republicans.
A fifth-generation Arizonan, Flake is a Mormon who was born and raised on a ranch in Snowflake, a town named after his great-great-grandfather. The fifth of 11 children, he graduated with a degree in international studies from Brigham Young University and did missionary work in South Africa and Zimbabwe. In 1989, he moved to Namibia to become executive director of the Foundation for Democracy, which monitored democratic progress in that country. After Namibia gained independence in 1990, Flake returned to Arizona and became executive director of the Goldwater Institute, where he led the fight for Arizona’s charter-school law.
In 2000, when conservative Republican Matt Salmon kept his pledge to serve only three terms in Congress, he handpicked Flake to succeed him. Flake faced four opponents in a hard-fought September primary, in which he ran as the most conservative candidate and won. In the general election, Flake easily defeated Democrat David Mendoza, a longtime lobbyist for public employees.
Flake promised to “continue to rock the boat” as Salmon had as a principled conservative who bucked the Republican leadership. He became the House’s leading opponent of earmarking and regularly tried to amend legislation to ban such special-interest funding provisions from being added to spending bills. After Republicans regained control of the House in 2010, he won a spot on the Appropriations Committee, whose members strongly favor earmarks. During President Bush’s administration, Flake voted against the 2001 No Child Left Behind education overhaul and the 2003 law extending benefits under Medicare for prescription drugs. In 2010, he was one of only three Republicans to oppose a bill overhauling how the Defense Department buys goods and services through expanding the Pentagon’s acquisition authority.
At the same time, Flake’s beliefs on occasion led him to support Democratic measures that many Republicans abhor. He supported a 2007 bill to prohibit workplace discrimination against gays, although he said in 2010 that he wouldn’t support the current version because of its expansion to include transgender rights. He joined Democrats in calling for an end to the 1962 trade embargo with Cuba, a blockade that many staunch anti-Communist Republicans support.
When Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl decided against seeking a fourth term, Flake joined the race. He faced a primary challenge from businessman Wil Cardon, and the two men waged an acrimonious campaign. Cardon inveighed against “career politicians” and ran an ad using Flake’s own words breaking his pledge not to serve more than three House terms. “What can I say? I lied,” Flake joked in an interview with Reason TV. Flake won easily, though Cardon outspent him by 2-to-1. But the late-August primary meant that he had less time to focus on the fall campaign against Carmona.
Carmona stressed doing more to assist veterans and took the middle ground on many issues, such as immigration and health care. Flake, meanwhile, emphasized his fiscal conservatism. His campaign ran one of the most explosive ads of the 2012 election cycle in which Cristina Beato, Carmona’s former boss at the Health and Human Services Department, alleged that he twice angrily banged on her door and yelled at her in the middle of the night after workplace disputes. Carmona’s campaign denied the charges and released its own spot featuring Cecilia Rosales, a University of Arizona professor, who called her former colleague “respectful and supportive of his coworkers.”
Carmona closed the gap in polls, but could not overcome Arizona’s traditionally Republican lean. Flake won the endorsement of The Arizona Republic, which wrote, “With the exception of Rep. Paul Ryan, perhaps no candidate for federal office in this election cycle is more committed to forcing sanity back into the nation’s finances.”