Arizona is a solidly Republican state with a 30-percent Hispanic population that tends to vote for Democrats. That is why the Senate race between Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, a Democrat, was rightfully considered a toss-up. Flake won with 51 percent of the vote, with Carmona about 90,000 votes behind.
Exit polls showed that among Latinos, 78 percent of women and 70 percent of men voted for Carmona, who is Hispanic. In total, Hispanic voters made up 19 percent of the electorate in Arizona.
Immigration is a huge issue in Arizona, and Latino opinions there reflect that. Immigration was the top issue for Hispanic voters in Arizona, according to a poll conducted last month by the immigration advocacy group America’s Voice, while jobs and the economy ranked a close second. That differs from the opinion of Hispanics nationwide. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Latinos care more about jobs and the economy, education, and health care than immigration.
Flake is no stranger to immigration as an issue. He has worked on legislation for years with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Like McCain, Flake retreated in 2010 from his previous support for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, saying it was politically impossible to pass such a bill. Carmona, on the other hand, said he supported a path to citizenship and the Dream Act to legalize undocumented youths.
Flake and Carmona were vying to fill the seat being vacated by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., an unadulterated conservative who served for 18 years in the Senate. If voters were looking to replace Kyl with a like-minded conservative, Flake was clearly their man. He earned his reputation in the House for a dogged fight against “earmarks” at a time when few elected officials worried about special payouts to certain districts for the sake of buying votes.
Flake is popular in Arizona. His unyielding campaign against earmarks, at times in conflict with Republican House leaders, earned him points with the nonconformist attitude that exudes from voters in the state. Flake is also a Mormon, which guaranteed him the lion’s share of the Mormon votes in Arizona, which was 11 percent of the total in 2008.
But Carmona was no slouch. He has an impressive—dare we say manly?—resume. He is a military veteran and has 25 years in Pima County Sheriff’s Department as a SWAT team leader and trauma surgeon. That was before he became U.S. surgeon general, when he butted heads with the Bush administration over stem cells, emergency contraception, and sex education. His official bio includes this nugget: “In 1992, he rappelled from a helicopter to rescue a paramedic stranded on a mountainside when their medevac helicopter crashed during a snow storm, inspiring a made-for-TV movie.” You can’t make that stuff up.
Unfortunately for Carmona, he also has a reputation for being a loose cannon and having trouble with women. He didn’t help that image in a televised debate in which he told a male moderator that he was “prettier” than CNN’s Candy Crowley, who aggressively moderated the second presidential debate between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. “Not sure how to take that,” said Channel 12 news anchor Brahm Resnik.
Flake was not shy about exploiting Carmona’s questionable reputation with a hard-hitting ad featuring his female former boss at the Health and Human Services Department, who talked about Carmona’s anger issues and said he was not fit for the Senate. Carmona denied the allegations and said Flake was resorting to the low-blow campaign tactic as a last resort because he was losing in the polls.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the title of Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.