Carmona’s AZ Senate Bid— Democratic Oasis or Mirage?

By DrVMDS on May 24, 2012

This post originally appeared on NBCLatino.

Arizona is a red state. The Governor and the legislature is Republican, very Republican, and the state’s congressional delegation is dominated by the GOP. Let’s just say that when I come home to visit my folks in Southern Arizona I don’t see a whole bunch of Obama 2012 stickers. Nevertheless the Obama campaign has bet big on the growing Latino population and declared “game on” in the Grand Canyon state. The President together with the Democratic National Committee is relying on a large dose of optimism, the belief that Arizona Latinos will mobilize in reaction to recent anti-immigrant policies, and that Rich Carmona’s Senate bid will energize Latinos and attract non-Latino moderates.

Winning statewide office as a Democrat in Arizona is no easy feat. However, it can be done and if someone can do it its Richard Carmona. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps, military bootstraps, to be exact. Carmona grew up poor with parents who had substance abuse problems. He dropped out of high school but then enrolled in the military where he became a combat decorated soldier having been a Green Beret and medic in the Vietnam War. Upon return from Vietnam Carmona completed college and went on to become a prestigious surgeon that in his spare time served in the Pima County Sheriff’s Department. Then, in 2002 under George W. Bush he was nominated and unanimously confirmed as Surgeon General.

Richard Carmona is a dream candidate, but the electoral reality of Arizona is difficult if not nightmarish from the Democratic standpoint. In the 2008 presidential election Barack Obama received the majority of the Latino vote but only 40 percent of the white vote. And in the 2010 mid-term election Senator John McCain received two-thirds of the white vote. White voters, who make up well over three-quarters of the electorate, vote Republican. What the last two elections highlight is that while Latinos may be the state’s fastest growing population, they make up fewer than one in five voters.

The lynchpin of Carmona’s strategy is to aggressively mobilize eligible Latinos to register to vote, since only half of voting eligible Latinos in Arizona are registered, and to get them to turn out. The hope is that the last two years of ugly anti-Latino/anti-immigrant rhetoric will spur Latinos to the polls. But in his race Carmona will not be up against an extreme immigrant bashing Republican. Carmona’s Republican challenger will not be a Russell Pearce or Jan Brewer type. In the wake of the August primary, either Rep. Jeff Flake or Will Cardon will oppose Democrat Richard Carmona. In the microcosm of AZ politics, both Flake and Cardon are relatively moderate Republicans.

The mobilization of Latino voters will be an uphill battle for Carmona. While close to forty percent of the Latino population is eligible to vote, the median age of Latino non-immigrant voters is eighteen. This is not an insignificant roadblock given the youth are infamously difficult to engage and mobilize. An additional Latino challenge the Democratic candidate will face is his lack of name recognition within the Latino community. Rich Carmona is well known on a national level, but among Democratic Latino circles in Arizona he does not have the roots of other political leaders such as Rep. Raul Grijalva or Rep. Ed Pastor.

The mobilization of the Latino vote is a necessary but not sufficient condition for Carmona’s senate victory. He must woo enough white voters to be competitive. Carmona has a good shot of peeling enough non-Latino white voters to be competitive. Though he is running as a Democrat he served as Surgeon General under George W. Bush. He has also become a vocal advocate of bi-partisanship. Like Arizona Senator John McCain (pre-2008), Carmona has been referred to as a maverick—someone who is willing to find solutions irrespective of who they come from. Putting together a winning coalition of Latinos and white moderates is a tall order in Arizona but it just might work and turn Arizona blue and see the first Democratic senator in over two decades.

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