“Political Greek god,” “amazing” and “tremendous” are all words used to describe Arizona Democratic Senate candidate Richard Carmona — by Republicans.
Many Arizona Republicans think the Democrat who was personally tapped by President Obama to run could be the first Democrat Arizonans send to the Senate in 22 years.
His compelling biography is a big reason why.
Carmona, the former surgeon general under President George W. Bush, identifies as both a doctor and a law enforcement official. The son of Puerto Rican parents, Carmona grew up poor in Harlem, where he battled hunger and homelessness. He dropped out of high school and joined the Army.
But from there, things turned around. He got his GED and joined the Special Forces. When he returned home, he brought with him two Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts and a combat medical badge among a “number other decorations,” according to his campaign. Carmona was the first person in his family to graduate from college, then medical school. He was recruited to Arizona to start a regional trauma care system, and he’s lived there ever since, working as a surgeon, professor and a decorated member of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department.
Sometimes his resume reads like a movie script, like the time he rappelled from a helicopter to save someone stranded on a mountainside — a feat that inspired a made-for-TV movie. A decade earlier, he sustained a head wound while fending off an armed man whom he fatally wounded before tending to the man’s victim, according to the Daily Beast. Now, Carmona seeks to join the body that unanimously confirmed him as surgeon general in 2002.
He certainly faces a tough road: He’s running as a Democrat — though he was previously an independent — in a historically red state. Buoyed by a large Mormon population, Mitt Romney is favored to win the state, which could also help down-ballot Republicans.
But given the bare-knuckled brawl for control of the United States Senate, which has turned nasty in several other states, it’s rare to find a close race in which members of the opposing party are willing to speak so glowingly about the competition.
“Zeus,” Arizona GOP strategist Jason Rose said, “sent the Democratic Party here a political Greek god.”
“It’s a great story. It’s a beautiful story,” said Grant Woods, a former Republican attorney general of Arizona. “It makes people want to root for him, just like Barack Obama had a great story.”
Carmona is often compared to Janet Napolitano, the most successful Arizona Democrat in recent history, who won three statewide races before being joining the Obama administration to run the Department of Homeland Security.
“She was able to upend Matt Salmon,” said Rose, who advised Mitt Romney in Arizona in 2008 and supports him this time around, referring to Napolitano’s 2002 gubernatorial win in a very Republican year. “Can Carmona repeat what Napolitano was able to achieve? It’s certainly possible.”
“He has the potential to be an even better candidate than Napolitano,” said Woods. “Again that’s potential right now. … Janet, in all three of her statewide races, she executed flawlessly. I mean, there were no missteps. She did an excellent job. But on paper, I think Carmona starts in a much better position as a candidate than she did.”
Some Arizona Republicans believe that Carmona could go toe to toe with another certain Arizonan who was plenty qualified for the Senate.
“John McCain had one hell of a resume,” Marcus Dell’Artino, a Republican political consultant in Arizona and a veteran of both McCain’s presidential campaigns, said when asked to name a candidate with similar credentials.
Woods didn’t hesitate. “John McCain,” he said. “I mean, it was a stunner, what can you say, with his background. But other than that? No.”
“I think [Carmona has] the best resume that has run for political office in Arizona since John McCain in 1982,” said Rose. “You can make the argument that it’s the best bio to ever run for office in Arizona.”
Rose said Carmona is not just good on paper, either. He saw him in person and was “thoroughly impressed.”
Of course, Carmona faces an uphill climb. Even Republicans being generous with Democrats’ prospects in the state think Romney will win by a comfortable margin — meaning Carmona must get a significant number of voters to split their tickets. But Republicans who spoke with TPM believed that their party, still embroiled in a primary to determine who will go up against Carmona, are not taking the Democrat seriously enough. The favorite on the Republican side is Rep. Jeff Flake, but he’s still trying to fend off Wil Cardon, an independently wealthy, tea party-style businessman.
“I don’t think Republicans are looking far enough into the future right now,” said Dell’Artino, who thinks a bloody primary could push both Republicans to the right in the coming months and hurt the GOP nominee in the general election. Republicans may be stuck in the past, said Rose, made too comfortable by the Democratic fields in recent cycles that he called “anemic on its best day.”
Once Republicans get their nominee, they will be tasked with attacking what even members of their own party believe is a formidable candidate.
“They’re going to have to compete with him just on the issues,” said Dell’Artino, and “provide him as little opportunity as possible to talk about his background.” The more Carmona talks about his background, Dell’Artino believes, “the more appealing he becomes for middle-of-the-road voters and certainly attractive for women voters,” whom he describes as “the most precious commodity” in Arizona politics. “Allowing him to tell his personal story is detrimental to Republican candidate.”
Rose predicted that Carmona’s eventual opponent will try to tie him to Obama. “He’s the president’s choice,” he said. Carmona, he said, needs to take some cues from Napolitano, who skillfully separated herself from Democrats from time to time, in order to deflect such attacks.
Shane Wikfors, the communications director for the Arizona Republican Party, indeed stressed Carmona’s relationship with Obama. “Carmona was called by President Obama and asked to jump in this race,” he said. “The speculation for that is that Obama felt that having Carmona in the race would buoy up the chances of his results here in Arizona.” Wikfors said Carmona’s background “speaks for itself” but the idea that “he’ll be a rubber stamp for Obama,” he said, “is a big concern.”
Wikfors also mentioned a Politico article detailing allegations that Carmona became unreasonably angry several times with a colleague when he was surgeon general, and wondered whether Carmona had “anger management issues.” The National Republican Senatorial Committee emailed the article to reporters when it was published.
Carmona’s campaign manager, Alexis Tameron, denied those charges. “These baseless allegations only serve as an example of the malicious and personal brand of partisan politics that Dr. Carmona has repeatedly spoken against,” she told Politico.
The NRSC also played up the Obama ties. “Richard Carmona is the only Senate candidate in the country who was personally recruited by President Obama because he knows Carmona will be a loyal vote for his liberal, big government agenda. And we will be reminding Arizonans of that fact every day until Election Day,” said Brian Walsh, communications director for the NRSC.
Still, Carmona has a shot if he can get independents and some moderate Republican voters. Woods points to his time as surgeon general, when Carmona both served under a president from the opposing party, and then stood up to the administration when he believed it was politicizing scientific issues.
“I think that’s probably what people are looking for,” said Woods, who said he’s considering voting for Carmona himself.
“I don’t think any typical Democrat would have a chance, but Dr. Carmona isn’t a typical Democrat,” said Matt Canter, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, stressing his mass appeal to both sides of the aisle. “In fact, he’s a lifelong independent and served in a Republican administration.”
“I’m going to vote for Flake in the primary. Between Flake and Carmona, I haven’t decided,” Woods said. “Yeah, he needs to get people like me.”
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.