With Arizona poised to help decide the partisan balance in the U.S. Senate, competition in the state’s race is fierce.
Richard Carmona, the Democratic candidate with a history of military service and a past appointment as the U.S. Surgeon General under George W. Bush, appears tailor-made to appeal to the state’s historically Democratic American Indians. Making up a strong 5 percent of the state’s electorate, the Native population could have significant sway in getting him to office and maintaining the Democratic majority in the Senate. But whether they’ll get to the polls and assert that power is an open question.
Three-time Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, a Republican, is retiring, which leaves the state’s senate seat up for grabs. The candidates vying to fill it – Carmona and Republican Jeff Flake – have been neck and neck in most polls until recently, when Carmona pulled slightly ahead. An October 3 poll released by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling has Carmona ahead 45 to 43 percent, following more than a month of polls by other groups that showed Flake several percentage points ahead of Carmona.
Despite an impressive resume, Carmona, 62, has been casting himself as a graduate of the school of hard knocks. He grew up in Harlem and acknowledges that his parents struggled with alcohol and drug addiction. A high school dropout, Carmona joined the Army at age 17 and fought in Vietnam, ending his service with two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts. Following his service, he earned a GED, returned to school, and pursued the medical degree that later qualified him to serve as U.S. Surgeon General.
The Republican candidate, Flake, 49, is in his sixth term in Congress, serving House of Representatives District 6. He showcases his fifth-generation Arizona heritage, pointing out in campaign materials that he was raised on a ranch in Snowflake, Arizona. He also served a Mormon mission in southern Africa and attended Brigham Young University for his bachelors and master’s degrees. Throughout his career, Flake has promoted a “conservative philosophy of less government, more freedom, and individual responsibility.”
Both the Democrats and the Republicans have been watching the tight Arizona senate race for its potential to influence the political balance at the federal level. But when Carmona edged past Flake in the October 3 poll, the Republican Party got even more serious.
Last week, National Republicans unveiled a $570,000 ad campaign alleging Obama handpicked Carmona for the race – a notion Carmona has dismissed. The conservative advocacy group, Club for Growth, and tea party organizer, FreedomWorks for America, have also joined in with similar messages.
About 36 percent of Arizona voters are registered as Republicans, while independents comprise about 33 percent and Democrats about 30 percent. Native American voters are strong enough in numbers to cast the deciding votes – if they get to the polls. And in recent years, that hasn’t been happening, says Candy Owens, the recorder for Coconino County. Among the 71 precincts in the large county – which occupies a large swath in the middle of the state’s northern half – 16 are Navajo, one is Hopi and one is Havasupai.
“What has happened over the years is they’re turning out in lower and lower numbers,” Owens said of Native voters. “In the 90s, the reservation was always higher than Flagstaff and the surrounding communities. They used to be at 60, 70, 80 percent voter turnout. It’s not the case any more.”
Stronger Presence Might Help
Micah Loma’omvaya, chief of staff for Hopi Tribal Chairman LeRoy Shingoitewa, said people generally like to vote at Hopi, especially in tribal and federal elections, but it’s not always a strict priority.
“I think there could be a bigger push from the elections office, but more of a push could come from the campaigns themselves,” he said. Loma’omvaya noted that Ann Kirkpatrick and Carmona had both planned to attend a Hopi Tribal Council meeting on Monday, October 8, but neither showed. It’s possible that they tried to cancel by phone, as the phones were down at Hopi that day, but as of Tuesday there had been no explanation or rescheduling of the visit.
Tribal members in Arizona have historically voted as Democrats, and that’s still largely the case. But that trend, too, has been fraying at the edges. That was partly revealed in 2008, when Shiprock, New Mexico made headlines because “it was the first time anybody could remember a Republican headquarters set up on the rez,” said Erny Zah, spokesman for Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly.
Harriet Young, first vice chair of the Arizona Democratic Party, said the balance has been “changing over time because Mormons have been fairly successful proselytizing on the reservations.” But the Democratic Party also focuses attention on the reservations. Outreach volunteers visit often and try to get people registered to vote, and candidates do too, Young said, adding that Carmona has been to Indian country several times during this campaign. The Obama campaign, too, recently opened an office in Gallup.
But if the impressions of Shelly’s staff are any indication, the candidates had better step it up: “When it comes to candidates in Arizona, they don’t seem to frequent the Navajo reservation,” Zah said. He said Kirkpatrick, the candidate for U.S. House of Representatives District 1 that includes the Navajo Nation, has visited numerous times, most recently to attend the Navajo Nation fair in Window Rock in early September. But neither he nor his fellow staffers could recall visits by other candidates, including either Carmona or Flake. More candidates seem to visit from New Mexico races, he said, noting that Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. attended the Navajo fair in Shiprock recently along with Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., New Mexico State Representative Ray Begay and Theresa Becenti-Aguilar, an appointed member of the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission.
Zah says no matter who gets elected, it would benefit them to get to know their tribal constituents. “We hope that a lot of these candidates understand that dealing with Native American tribes is different and more complex than dealing with municipalities,” he said. “We have a lot of the same rights and programs of a state, and we function politically a lot like a state.”