The U.S. Senate race in Arizona just got a lot more interesting after a new poll shows Democrat Richard Carmona neck-and-neck with Republican U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake, a six-term congressman.
If Carmona pulls an upset, he could become the first Latino senator in Arizona history.
A poll released Tuesday by the Public Policy Polling, a North Carolina-based Democratic firm, showed Flake with a thin 44 percent to 43 percent lead over Carmona. This is the first publicly released poll of the U.S. Senate race since Flake was the victor in a heated GOP primary battle against multimillionaire Wil Cardon.
The poll of nearly 1,000 likely voters, conducted from Sept. 7-9, showed 13 percent are still undecided. It also revealed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney ahead of President Barack Obama 53 percent to 44 percent among Arizona voters.
For some Arizonans, the poll results were not a surprise. That is because Carmona—a former U.S. Surgeon General under President George W. Bush—has proven to be a competitive candidate who has a diverse background and appeals to a broad group of voters.
The Democratic candidate was born and raised in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood to Puerto Rican parents who had drug and alcohol problems. After dropping out of high school, he enlisted in the Army. He went on to become a decorated military veteran, a trained surgeon, a medical professor and a deputy sheriff.
In 2002, President Bush nominated Carmona to be U.S. Surgeon General. Carmona served for four years, during which time he was advised by several politicians to run for office as a Republican.
Carmona was a registered independent until last November when he decided to run as the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate. Shortly before his announcement, he got a call from Obama who personally urged him to run for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Jon Kyl, a Republican who served three terms.
Political analyst Mike O’Neil described Carmona as a “Democratic dream candidate” who just might be the first Democratic senator from Arizona since 1995. Not only that, Carmona could also be the first Hispanic senator in the state’s 100-year history.
“Much of his biography makes him an ideal candidate,” O’Neil told VOXXI.
Carmona’s Puerto Rican roots could also make him an attractive candidate among Latino, who make up 18 percent of the state’s registered voters. Currently, he enjoys a wide lead with the state’s Latinos. According to the new poll, 55 percent of Latino voters surveyed said they support Carmona while 24 percent said they back Flake.
Dozens of organizations across the state have been working daily to register Latino voters, who tend to vote Democratic. A coalition of organizations have registered at least 20,000 Latinos to vote.
But in a state where there are 180,000 more registered Republican voters than Democrats, 20,000 newly registered Latino voters will not be enough to help Carmona win.
O’Neil said the Republican lead will have to shrink to at least 120,000 in order to guarantee a close race between Carmona and Flake. Consequently, it could also tighten the race between Obama and Romney.
O’Neil said another option for Carmona is to gain support from Republicans.
“If voters stick to party-line voting, Carmona will lose,” he said.
The new poll showed Carmona does have significant support from the GOP. Seventeen percent of the Republicans surveyed said they favored him over Flake. Meanwhile, Flake got support from 11 percent of Democrats. But among independent voters, Flake leads 39 to 36 percent and with women he also leads 43 to 30 percent.
These numbers could change in the next few weeks as the November election approaches. Both candidates are already busy campaigning to get them to go in their favor.
On Sept. 4, Flake announced he was launching “an Arizona issues tour” to discuss some of the pressing challenges facing the state. That same day, Carmona released his first Spanish-language ad titled El Camino. In it, he told his story and introduced himself to Spanish-speakers.
Attacks on each other have also begun. While O’Neil said the GOP will have a tough time attacking Carmona in this election, mostly because of his impressive resume and his past support from Republicans like President Bush, Flake and his supporters have cast him as a hand-picked candidate that was recruited by Obama.
Carmona has lashed back, saying he has been recruited by Republicans for years.