With a bloody Republican primary behind him, U.S. Senate candidate Jeff Flake sets his eyes on the prize.
Jeff Flake is no Steve Nash, but the six-time Arizona congressman – and former starting small forward for the Snowflake High School Lobos – held his own against President Barack Obama in a much-publicized, invite-only Beltway pickup game in 2009. “That’s the nice thing
about Congress,” Flake says. “You can be a mediocre high school athlete, but as long as you can beat [82-year-old New York U.S. Representative] Charlie Rangel down the court, you should be all right.”
For 12 years, the Mesa Republican’s semi-annual reelection campaigns were kind of like that. One-sided affairs. Metaphorical breakaway layups against a fat-bodied octogenarian. Representing the solidly-GOP 6th congressional district in the East Valley, Flake cruised to reelection five times. In 2004 and 2006, the Democrats didn’t even field a candidate. They were “races” in name only.
All of that inevitably changed when the youthful, even-tempered 49-year-old – whom Washington media memorably labeled “libertarian beefcake” in 2009 – announced his intention to succeed three-term Senator John Kyl in the upcoming November elections. First came a more vicious-than-expected challenge from deep-pocketed Mesa businessman Will Cardon in the Republican primary. Now Flake faces a well-known and well-funded Democrat – former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona – in what promises to be an even bloodier main event.
Win or lose, Flake will have absorbed more political punishment in 12 months than he did his entire 12 years in Congress. So the question hangs: Did those GOP-on-GOP haymakers in the primary hobble the golden boy of Arizona politics? Or were they a warmup – just the thing to sharpen political sparring skills dulled by 20-point victory margins?
Enjoying a patch of shade at Camelback Mountain, where he sometimes hikes, the fit father-of-five is philosophical. “They’ve taken some shots,” he concedes. “And [Carmona] is a good candidate for the Democrats. He’s bright and articulate and he has a great resume. It’ll be a great race.”
When pressed about the Cardon campaign, which essentially carpet-bombed airwaves and the Internet with $5 million of anti-Flake rhetoric, the Brigham Young University graduate betrays a look of wounded bemusement. Cardon – a fellow Mormon and one-time staunch supporter of Flake – declared his candidacy relatively late in the campaign cycle and quickly went on the offensive, branding Flake a “career politician” in TV ads. Cardon also floated the phrase “Flake Air” to deride his opponent for taxpayer-funded travel. It was a particularly stinging rebuke for Flake, known as a crusader against earmarks and other forms of taxpayer-funded pork. “I still have a hard time figuring that one out myself,” Flake says. “He was supportive of me as recently as when I started running this race. He was on my finance committee.”
Cardon and his operatives didn’t stop there. They ridiculed Flake for reneging on a promise in 2000 to limit his congressional service to three terms. They also assailed his moderate record on immigration, which at one point earned him unlikely praise from the left-leaning Phoenix New Times.
Flake amended his support for a temporary-worker program recently, possibly to quell conservative criticism. “In the past I have supported a broad approach to immigration reform... I no longer do,” he said in a statement last July. “Border reform must be addressed before other reforms are tackled.”
Flake’s opponents also raised questions about his dynamic career in public policy. As an undergraduate in the ’80s, Flake served a two-year Mormon mission in South Africa and Zimbabwe. Fluent in Afrikaans, he returned to the region in 1989 to serve as executive director of the Foundation for Democracy in Namibia, a U.N.-sanctioned organization that helped facilitate the country’s transition from South Africa-enforced Apartheid to a parliamentary democracy. “We made sure it went smoothly and that all parties were involved,” he recalls. “So to be a political junkie in a country when it writes its constitution, that was nirvana. They could have done just fine without me, but it was neat to be there.”
Upon returning from Africa, Flake worked as a lobbyist for Rossing Uranium, a leading nuclear-fuel supplier that operates a mine in Namibia. At the time, some U.S. governances continued to penalize Rossing with antiquated Apartheid-era sanctions, despite Namibia’s democratic rehabilitation. (This experience is partly why Flake has opposed sanctions against pariah states like Iran and Cuba, he says). When it came to light in 2011 that Rossing is fractionally-owned by the Republic of Iran – a grandfathered arrangement that goes back to Tehran’s pro-U.S. past – some critics tried to draw a connection.
“That is the silliest angle to a story that I’ve ever seen,” Flake says. “I had no idea [Iran was a partner]. Nor did anybody else. The U.S. government only found out in 2005.”
Though Flake won the Republican primary handily, he also had to draw $1.4 million out of his campaign war chest to defeat Cardon. Moreover, Cardon’s scorched-earth campaign opened jagged divisions within Arizona’s GOP base – although how much those divisions will actually hurt Flake at the voting booth is debatable. “I’ll vote for [Flake], but I’ll hold my nose,” Valley-based Tea Party activist Susan Leeper says. “He’s never worked in the business world, never made money on his own. He’s a professional politician… but I don’t want to see Carmona in office.”
Born into a prominent family, Flake isn’t a candidate who can rely on a narrative of adversity – after all, his Mormon pioneer great-great-grandfather is the eponymous “flake” in Snowflake, and his family owns one of the largest cattle operations in the state. So is it preposterous to suggest that the tough primary actually helped him in the long run? Voters have seen the family-man Flake and the shirtless survivor-man Flake on vacation in the South Pacific. But until Cardon came along, they hadn’t seen the Flake under duress, coolly extolling his conservative bona fides.
If nothing else, the primary forced him to fine-tune his message for a larger and more complex state-wide electorate. Arizona State Senator Sylvia Allen says his relationship with Arizona’s GOP base is secure. “He just needs to come out strong on the issues. Strong on fiscal responsibility. Strong on immigration.”
It remains to be seen if Flake will show voters another look – the attack-mode Flake. He takes pride in his above-the-belt campaigning history. He’s never gone “negative” and he’s never had to. As Democrat Rebecca Schneider, who twice ran unsuccessfully for Flake’s congressional seat, recollects: “Running against him, he never debated me… he really didn’t pay attention to me. He had family money and great connections. I’m a librarian.”
Flake is resigned to a more bare-knuckle affair with Carmona: “If it was up to [Carmona], he’d run the campaign largely on the issues. Now, whether his campaign advisors will allow him to do that, I have to question.”
Perhaps the more interesting question is: Will the GOP’s fair-haired knight of fiscal responsibility respond in kind? Because the 82-year-old has left the court, and a layup won’t get it done.
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