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National Democrats Eye Arizona Senate Clash

Former Surgeon General Fighting Past State Party Chairman

Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images
Former Surgeon General Richard Carmona has a unique biography and served under a Republican president. National Democrats hope to use his moderate record to appeal to independent voters in Arizona, who make up about a third of the state's voting population.

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National Democrats have made it no secret they think Richard Carmona gives the party its best chance of flipping a Republican Senate seat in Arizona.

There’s just one problem: Carmona must prevail in a Democratic primary that pits him against a longtime local leader who won’t back out of the race anytime soon.

Carmona, who served as surgeon general for President George W. Bush, jumped into the open-seat race after a major recruitment push that included President Barack Obama lobbying for him to run. National Democrats said they think Carmona has the “capacity to clear the field.”

The party establishment in Washington, D.C., did not have the same confidence in former state party Chairman Don Bivens, a consummate dues-paying Democrat. Bivens, who complains about “the Washington crowd,” is making his strategy clear.

“While some in D.C. have selected their candidate for Arizona, I am proud to have the support of hundreds of Arizonans,” he said when welcoming Carmona to the race last month.

“I think the people of Arizona get to choose. Not folks in Washington,” Bivens later told Roll Call in an interview.

The primary complicates things for Democrats, who want to put this state in play for Obama in the presidential race and maintain the party’s hold on the Senate. Earlier this year, things seemed brighter.

Before she was shot, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was considered a top choice to run for Senate. But when Republican Sen. Jon Kyl announced his retirement a few weeks later, Democrats avoided Senate talk. When it became clear that Giffords would not be seeking the seat, Democrats struggled to find a quality candidate. The eventual nominee is likely to face Rep. Jeff Flake, a popular and well-funded Republican with national conservatives’ backing. Flake is expected to clear his own primary against real estate investor Wil Cardon, who last quarter loaned his campaign $800,000.

Have national Democrats approached Bivens about exiting the race to clear the way for their favored contender? “Heavens no,” Bivens said.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Executive Director Guy Cecil said last month, when the party was wooing Carmona to run, that the recruitment effort was not undercutting Bivens.

“It’s a long primary process, they have several months to go. We’ll see what happens,” Cecil said at a breakfast hosted by Third Way.

But the DSCC has clearly communicated that the party finds Carmona attractive because of his unique biography.

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