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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.

A high school dropout from a poor Hispanic family in Harlem, Carmona enlisted in the Army in 1967 and served in Vietnam. Over the next 12 years, he earned a GED diploma, two Purple Hearts, a bachelor’s degree and a medical degree.

After medical school, Carmona worked as both a trauma surgeon and a SWAT team leader. In 1992, he was serving as Pima County deputy sheriff and rescued someone stranded on a cliff by rappelling from a helicopter. And that’s just one of his career adventures. Seven years later, a bullet grazed his skull when he stumbled on a gunfight after a traffic accident. He fired back, killing one of the drivers who had shot at him.

Carmona served in the Bush administration from 2002 to 2006 and later claimed he had been constantly at odds with Bush’s government in clashes about climate change, stem-cell research and abstinence education. Carmona admitted he’d been “quite politically naive” when he arrived in Washington.

Bivens has spent his career in legal and political circles. He led the Arizona State Bar Association and is a former director of Planned Parenthood of Central and Northern Arizona.

Over the past decade Bivens has been a diligent political donor, giving generously to Democratic House and Senate candidates, some of whom have endorsed him in his current campaign. 

Former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who is making a forceful run to return to Congress, is backing Bivens. She said Democrats should consider him the candidate “we all need to rally around right now.” Former Rep. Harry Mitchell and former Senate candidate Jim Pederson, another former state party chairman, are also backing Bivens.

But Carmona’s team plans to roll out local endorsements of his own as the nascent campaign gets off the ground.  On Monday night the campaign announced Carmona has the backing of former Sen. Dennis DeConcini, the last Arizona Democrat to hold a Senate seat. He said in a statement that Carmona has “independent judgment and the strength to do the right thing, even when that’s not popular.”

The budding Carmona team boasts adviser Rodd McLeod, who served as Giffords’ campaign manager. Carmona sought out McLeod with questions about running before making the decision. McLeod told Roll Call he thinks Carmona is in a strong position in the race because of a “compelling personal narrative and his strong appeal to independent voters.”

An Arizona Democratic strategist said Carmona topping the ballot could help boost turnout among Hispanic voters, helping the party and Obama’s re-election effort.

Bivens called it “a perfect storm a brew” for Democrats to win the seat, but Roll Call Politics rates the race Likely Republican.

Republicans hold the governorship and both chambers of the Legislature, including a supermajority in the state Senate. Both Senators are Republican, and the GOP outnumbers Democrats five to three in the House delegation.

To keep it competitive, national Democrats are counting on Carmona as the candidate who can best appeal to Arizonans not affiliated with a party — about one-third of the state’s voting population.

A party strategist summed up the thinking: “Washington Democrats don’t believe Don Bivens can win the general election, but they believe Carmona can.”

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