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Outside groups spending big in Carmona-Flake Senate race

National Democrats investing in Jeff Flake-Richard Carmona race

U.S. Senate candidates Jeff Flake (left) and Richard Carmona. (AP Photos)

The battle between former Surgeon General Richard Carmona and Congressman Jeff Flake has officially become one of nation’s top U.S. Senate races.

While the national Democratic and Republican parties, along with their allied super PACs, have been spending hand over fist for months in states like Indiana, Nevada, North Dakota and Wisconsin, Arizona didn’t appear to be on anyone’s radar until just a couple weeks ago, after Flake’s dominating win in the GOP primary.

Now, outside groups are pouring money into a race that was once viewed as a lock for the GOP in one of America’s more reliably red states.

Carmona, whom national Democrats and even President Barack Obama helped recruit into the race, has climbed in the polls. Most polls show Flake leading by a few points, within the margin of error, while a recent poll showed Carmona with a slight lead.

Cook Political Report on Oct. 4 designated the Arizona Senate race as an “unlikely toss-up,” one day after Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm based in North Carolina, released a poll showing Carmona leading Flake by three points. Flake led by one point in a PPP poll just three weeks earlier.

“This open-seat contest has puzzled us for months,” wrote Jennifer Duffy of Cook Political Report. “Despite Democrats’ insistence that it would be a close race, there wasn’t much evidence to support that contention. Now that the race between Republican U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake and former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona is truly engaged, the close contest that Democrats predicted has emerged.”

Carmona spokesman Andy Barr said a lot of people were slow to figure out how competitive the race would be.

“I don’t think the national groups were really looking to spend money here because they didn’t think that we’d be able to get this into a position where Carmona’s capable of winning,” Barr said. “Our guys got up first. We have no idea what they’re doing, but I think our side was quicker to recognize the potential that was there.”

A Flake spokesman could not be reached for comment.

VoteVets Action Fund, a veterans’ organization that supports Democratic candidates, and Majority PAC, which backs Democratic Senate candidates, kicked off the outside spending binge in September with an ad accusing Flake of voting against veterans’ issues. The group spent about $280,000 for a week’s worth of advertising on broadcast and cable television.

The conservative Club for Growth, which spent about $1 million on advertising in the Republican primary against Flake opponent Wil Cardon, responded for Flake with a $500,000 media buy against Carmona.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee bought $526,000 in airtime to help Carmona, according to national media reports, airing its first ad on Oct. 3. The next day, the National Republican Senatorial Committee announced a $550,000 buy of its own.

Flake and the conservative groups that are supporting him have held to a consistent message – that Carmona will be a “rubber stamp” for Obama and supports Democratic issues such as the Affordable Care Act. The Club for Growth warned that a Carmona victory could leave Democrats in control of the U.S. Senate.

Democrats have hit Flake on a number of fronts. VoteVets criticized his record on veterans’ issues, including his vote against the post-9/11 GI Bill, while the DSCC attacked his position on women’s issues.

DSCC also contributed $115,000 through the end of August to the Arizona Democratic Party’s federal campaign fund.

In addition, FreedomWorks, a conservative super PAC, has spent about $175,000 in the race, mostly on online advertising and grassroots organizing.

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