All indications are that Rep. Jeff Flake is headed to the U.S. Senate. The Arizona Republican appears set to steamroll his intraparty challenger in today’s primary election, and in head-to-head polls, he has also consistently led his Democratic opponent.
In Flake, Arizona Republicans know what they’re getting. Throughout his decade-long tenure, he has crusaded against congressionally directed spending, or earmarks — and did so even back when such a principled approach was unpopular and potentially damaging. After the GOP gained control of the House in the 2010 midterm elections, Flake was elevated to the House Appropriations Committee, a perch he has used to do what he does best: attack wasteful federal spending.
Flake’s popularity is not just among Republicans. Earlier this year, Esquire named him to its list of the 10 best members of Congress. “A true conservative,” the magazine wrote. “Flake is as rare as the dodo. Republicans should learn from him, and liberals and libertarians will find in him a strong privacy-rights ally.”
In an interview, Max Pappas, vice president of public policy and government affairs at FreedomWorks, praised Flake for voting against the Wall Street bailout, the Dodd-Frank financial regulation, and Obamacare, and for standing up to House Democrats as well as Republicans on earmarks and entitlement reform. He called Flake “the best champion that the limited government movement has had in the House of Representatives.”
The tone of Tea Party primary challenges has become familiar: A fresh-faced candidate lines up against an establishment Republican, who is presented as entrenched, out of touch, and insufficiently conservative. Such was the case with Senate races in Indiana, where Richard Mourdock toppled incumbent Sen. Dick Lugar, and in Texas, where Ted Cruz defeated Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Arizona’s Senate race is not one of those elections. Flake’s endorsements from prominent Tea Party figures, like Jim DeMint and Sarah Palin, say as much.
But that’s not to say the race hasn’t had its moments. Flake and his challenger, businessman Wil Cardon, are both Mormons hailing from Mesa, Arizona. As fate would have it, they belong to the same congregation. In the past, Cardon has also been a frequent donor to Flake’s congressional campaigns. As one might expect, the close-knit community has been plagued by escalating tensions as the two candidates have faced off. “The whole thing is like a giant Mormon Jerry Springer show,” one resident told the Daily Beast.
And Cardon’s failure to gain traction among voters isn’t for lack of effort. So far, he has poured more than $6 million of his own money into his campaign. Although the latest poll shows that he trails by nearly 50 percentage points, he has nevertheless proved to be a pain in the neck for the party favorite and his supporters.
Cardon, who graduated from Stanford and Harvard Business School, runs his family business, The Cardon Group, having inherited it in 2001. According to him, he has created “hundreds of jobs” in “quick service restaurants, furniture companies, ranching operations, and real estate,” among other businesses.
“I think my lack of political experience is my greatest asset,” Cardon said in an interview. “You can’t be a successful member of a failed organization.” He has hammered Flake particularly hard on illegal immigration. One of his ads claims that Flake has “a more liberal record on illegal immigration than Barack Obama.”
These harsh — not to mention, expensive — attack ads have invoked the wrath of big-name Republicans like Sen. John McCain. “I worry that these attacks might make it harder in the general election for us to elect Mr. Jeff Flake to the United States Senate,” McCain said in July.
Flake did not respond to requests for comment — perhaps an indication that he is keeping his powder dry for the general election fight against Democrat Richard Carmona, formerly a U.S. Surgeon General. Or perhaps it’s simply a reflection of the fact that Flake has so many willing to speak on his behalf.
For instance, Cardon told TAS in May that “those who know Jeff Flake best trust him least.” But Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller is among those that both know and trust Flake. “We support Jeff Flake because his record in Congress demonstrates a commitment to limited government and pro-growth policy,” Keller said in an interview.
Pappas agreed when explaining FreedomWorks’ endorsement. “It was an easy call. There’s just no doubt about Jeff Flake whatsoever. We’ve seen exactly how he’ll vote,” Pappas said. “I see his record as proof of who he will be in the Senate, and that is one of the best senators we can possibly hope for.”
Photos by Gage Skidmore