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Cardon goes from Flake supporter to rival in Senate race

Wil Cardon (left) and Rep. Jeff Flake. (File photos)

Just four months after serving on a fundraiser committee for U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake’s Senate campaign, wealthy Mesa investor Wil Cardon announced that he would challenge the congressman for the Republican nomination.

Cardon, the owner and CEO of the Cardon Group Inc. and a member of an old-line Arizona family that has been in Arizona since the 1800s, launched his U.S. Senate campaign on Friday.

Cardon opened his campaign by staking out a conservative position on illegal immigration, possibly Flake’s greatest vulnerability, and contrasting his business background with Flake’s years of service in Congress and at a Valley think tank.

Since 1999, Cardon has contributed at least $8,700 to Flake’s congressional campaigns and even served on the host committee for his March 24 fundraiser.

Consultant Jason Rose, a spokesman for Cardon’s campaign, said Cardon believes he would be a better senator than Flake because of his experience in the business world. He also said Flake’s “flip flop” on illegal immigration helped persuade Cardon to start eying the race in April.

“There was not a falling out. There was not a specific moment in time. It was a combination of a lot of things and believing his skill set would best serve Arizona,” Rose said.

Rose said Flake’s modified stance on illegal immigration “just speaks to being a professional politician.” Flake historically supported comprehensive immigration reform but voted against a recent incarnation of the DREAM Act in May, saying the border must be secured first.

As he rolled out his campaign, Cardon focused on his private sector background and lack of political experience. Cardon said Arizona and the United States need a senator with business experience who knows how to get the economy back on track.

“I think we need more private sector people back in Washington who understand how to create jobs and how to get this economy going. That’s the only way to get ourselves out of this mess that’s been created by Barack Obama and the credit-card spending back in Washington,” Cardon said. “You have to have someone go back who’s run a business, balanced a budget, done all those things and not theoretically talked and thought about it. You have to have some private sector experience.”

Prior to Flake’s election to Congress in 2000, he served as executive director of the libertarian-leaning think tank, the Goldwater Institute.

Cardon, 40, said he would self-fund his campaign and said he is willing to spend whatever it takes to win the race. Rose said Cardon would make a sizeable contribution to his campaign in the next week or two that would immediately give him more cash on hand than Flake, who reported having $2 million in the bank in his June 30 finance report to the Federal Election Commission.

“Money won’t be an object in this race. I won’t be outspent,” Cardon said.

Though he said he wanted to focus on his credential’s, not Flake’s, he drew several stark contrasts with the six-term congressman, who has angered many conservatives with his positions on illegal immigration, trade with Cuba and gays in the military.

Cardon said he opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants and the DREAM Act, and is for “100 percent securing and defending our border.” Two months ago, Cardon said, he went on a tour of the border area, speaking with sheriffs, Border Patrol officials and others.

“I’m a hundred percent for securing the border. I think you have to do that first. And then you can’t reward those who break the law. Those are the two pillars you have to start with. If you can’t get those two things done, you can’t do anything else,” he said.

Tea partiers and conservative activists have long been hostile to Flake and have openly pined for a challenger since U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl announced that he wouldn’t seek reelection. U.S. Rep. Trent Franks nearly jumped into the race, but made a surprise announcement that he wouldn’t run the day before he was supposed to kick off his campaign.

Republican political consultant Constantin Querard said he has spoken with Cardon several times and believes he is a candidate whom conservatives can rally around.

“I think his core values, his basic philosophies are strong. They’re well-rooted. They have a good foundation,” said Querard, who is known for working for conservative candidates. “Flake has been a major and repeated disappointment.”

But despite Flake’s obvious weaknesses on illegal immigration, probably the greatest source of Tea Party hostility toward him, some said voters may be getting “immigration fatigue” and doubted whether Cardon would get much traction out of the issue.

“There certainly are going to be some people who don’t’ agree with Flake’s view on immigration. But I think he has stated very succinctly that security comes first. I think that’s a position that will be viewed favorably by most of the electorate,” said political consultant Nathan Sproul. “I think he’s going to have a very difficult time getting separation between him and Flake.”

Sproul also predicted that Cardon’s decision to challenge Flake just months after serving on a host committee for his fundraiser won’t sit well with voters.

“It’s extremely difficult to challenge someone in a primary when you have served on their finance committee for numerous election cycles and have been one of their staunchest supporters. It reeks of opportunism,” he said.

Unlike Flake, Cardon said he would work to bring federal money back to Arizona, which he said must no longer be a “donor state” to the federal government. He said he opposed earmarking, just as Flake does, but Arizona must get its fair share in return for the taxes it pays to the federal government.

“I think Arizona has passed it’s time where it needs to be a donor state. It needs to get all the money back and we need to find good projects. Without federal spending, we wouldn’t have the CAP. Where would we be without the Central Arizona Project?” Cardon said. “I oppose earmarks. I oppose going through the back door. But I’m a believer in transparency and up-and-down votes for projects in the Senate that will benefit Arizona and create jobs.”

Cardon’s campaign team already has two big names – media strategist Doug McAuliffe, who has worked for retiring U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl since 1994, and pollster Glen Bolger, of Public Opinion Strategies, who has extensive experience in Arizona, including work for former U.S. Reps. J.D. Hayworth, Matt Salmon and John Shadegg.

Former Arizona Democratic Party Chairman Don Bivens is seeking his party’s nomination for the seat. Tucson defense contractor David Crowe has also formed an exploratory committee as well.

Cardon attended Stanford University and Harvard Business School. He and his wife, Nicole, have five children.

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