By Sam Stone
Richard Carmona and Ron Barber have a lot in common. No, not their backgrounds. After all, Carmona is a former Surgeon General of the United States, a SWAT team member, and once killed a guy in the streets of Tucson. Barber, a lifelong social worker, was shot in the streets of Tucson. And that’s really all we know about either of them. Except that if you believe what they’re saying, they must be the most conservative Democrats in the entire United States.
Carmona is running to replace outgoing Sen. Jon Kyl. Barber is seeking the congressional seat formerly held by his boss, Gabrielle Giffords. And both are furiously channeling Barack Obama circa 2008.
Candidate Obama – a relatively unknown junior Senator from Illinois – was able to defeat Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary and then oust Sen. John McCain in the general election largely on the premise that he was a socially moderate, fiscally conservative candidate untainted by the acrimony of recent politics. Obama’s Campaign of a Million Promises went largely unchallenged because there was almost nothing to challenge, and – tellingly – no one to challenge him.
In 1996, when Barack Obama ran for the Illinois Senate he ensured his spot on the ballot by successfully challenging the nominating petitions of his four opponents. Then, during his 2004 race for the U.S. Senate, Obama’s opponents in both the primary and general election imploded when, according to the Chicago Tribune, “their messy divorce files were unsealed.” The Tribune even acknowledged in print that both stories were aggressively pushed by the Obama campaign, and that Obama’s designated attack-dog David Axelrod likely leaked the stories initially as well.
Apparently, however, legal challenges and dirty pool in the pressroom only take you so far. Now that he’s in the White House, President Obama has added another tool to his bag of tricks.
At the time Gabrielle Giffords announced her resignation on January 22nd, a host of Southern Arizona Democrats immediately began formulating their plans. Businesswoman Nan Walden, State Senator Paula Aboud, and State Representatives Matt Heinz and Steve Farley – among others – were all scurrying around Tucson lining up support. But when Giffords announced her backing of former aide Barber for the seat the Democratic Party machine when into overdrive flooring everyone who wanted to run against Barber, muscling them out of the way so that Barber could be a “caretaker” for the rest of Rep. Giffords’ term.
Terrified that they might be accused of insensitivity (and in the Democrat world-view today, is there a more heinous crime?) they all bowed to the pressure and withdrew from the special election, assured that they would all have their chance in a few months since Barber would not run for the regular election in November. Then Ron Barber went to Washington.
The settlers at Jamestown have nothing on this guy. No one in history has managed to catch Potomac Fever faster than Ron Barber. In 24 hours, he was feted and vetted by the President. Nancy Pelosi and Raul Grijalva whispered a few sweet nothings in his ear. Act Blue and MoveOn.org lined his pillow with cash and tucked him into bed. And by the time Ron Barber woke up in the morning the fever was raging. Ron was running for November.
Emboldened by their success in duplicating Obama’s field clearing strategy once already in Arizona, the Democrats decided to hold a BOGO sale. Obama used his high chair to push well-respected former Chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party Don Bivens out of the way in favor of his handpicked Senate candidate, Richard Carmona, which seems an odd choice considering that Bivens has a long track record within the state party, and has proven liberal chops. Carmona, meanwhile, worked for the Bush White House and was a registered independent until five months ago.
All of this begs the question, why? The numerous petrified fossils littering the U.S. Congress and Senate give often unfortunately verbose testimony to the rarity of open seats. So why has the Democratic Party machine twice interfered in Arizona elections, denying their Party’s primary voters the chance to choose their own representation?
Obama and his re-election team have made no secret of the fact they want to beat Mitt Romney in Arizona. But despite intensive efforts by Organizing for America, the SEIU, One Vote Arizona and Mi Familia Vota to register tens of thousands of new Democratic voters across the State, Arizona is still a moderately conservative-leaning state. No matter who won the primaries in the race to replace Gabrielle Giffords and Jon Kyl, Obama and the Democrats would have lost.
Even though he was personally recruited by Barack Obama and is receiving a ton of national democratic support, Carmona would have had a tough race against Don Bivens, and it’s entirely possible that Arizona’s solidly liberal Democratic primary voters would have rejected him as far too much of a compromise candidate. Even had he won, he would have been driven far to the left, a potentially fatal shift in a still-red state.
Ron Barber might have been in an even tougher position. Heinz, Aboud, Farley and Walden are all formidable opponents with strong progressive track records. Aboud and Heinz are also openly gay, meaning that social issues would likely have been a major issue in the special election primary. And, like the State in general, voters in Southern Arizona’s 8th Congressional District are conservative enough to make that kind of discussion highly damaging in the general election.
Instead, neither Carmona nor Barber had to reveal any kind of platform during the “primary “ process. They and their campaigns simply stayed silent, not even posting any position statements on their websites until after the field had been swept aside on their behalf.
Now, listening to both, you’d think they were the most conservative Democrats on the planet. Barber talks about “overhauling” Obamacare, securing our border and protecting veterans and Carmona’s website touts his commitment to balancing the budget. Close your eyes, and you’d think you were tuned in to conservative talk radio.
Why is that important? Obama’s low approval ratings don’t provide much in the way of coattails for candidates to grab on to. Instead, in Arizona, the President has adopted a strategy from NASCAR: drafting. Obama and his team are hoping that Barber can turn out key voters in the Democratic stronghold of Southern Arizona while Carmona does the same for him statewide.
Instead of leading them to victory, Obama hopes to be there, using his money, organization and influence to reduce the drag on his chosen candidates, and cling to their fenders at the end of the race in the hope that they can pull him across the finish line as well. It’s a plan that depends on having two unknown, and now unknowable, candidates unsullied by having to expose their positions in contested primaries.
What Richard Carmona and Ron Barber really believe is, essentially, immaterial at this point. Like Obama in 2008, they can say anything they want. Now we’ll have to find out if voters are willing to believe the magic act once again.
Sam Stone is a Republican political consultant in Southern Arizona.