WASHINGTON – Republican Senate nominee Jeff Flake and Democratic opponent Richard Carmona begin the general election race to succeed outgoing Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl with about $1.7 million each in their campaign bank accounts.
But while the men were neck-and-neck in the latest financial reports to the Federal Election Commission, political experts say Flake already has the edge, with greater exposure and greater likelihood for outside support as a Republican in a strongly Republican state.
Flake, as a congressman representing the 6th District, “has some of the perks of incumbency going for him,” said Ruth Jones, an Arizona State University professor of politics who specializes in campaign financing.
“He has name recognition, connections to interest groups, and connections to people who have connections,” Jones said.
Flake won the Republican nomination Tuesday after a grueling primary against newcomer Wil Cardon, who invested more than $8 million of his own money in a prolonged campaign. Despite Cardon’s spending, Flake cruised to victory, winning by a ratio of more than 3-to-1.
The question for the GOP is whether the primary garnered momentum or leveled the playing field for Carmona.
Earlier this year, Democratic leaders saw the opportunity for inroads in Arizona, where redistricting and demographic shifts have jostled the political order.
“There has been some movement towards Democratic gains in Arizona,” said Kim Fridkin, a professor of politics at Arizona State. “It’s not as right-leaning as it was 20 years ago.”
But Jones described both parties as risk-averse at the outset of the general election season.
“If the party committees are fighting for their lives in places like Wisconsin, Florida and Massachusetts, how likely are they to pour a ton of money into Arizona?” she asked.
Carmona fired an opening salvo in the fundraising war Tuesday, asking Flake in an open letter to pledge to ban support from “super” political action committees and similar groups.
“Unlike a campaign committee these so-called ‘Super PAC’ groups do not report how much money an individual, corporation or union contributed or where the money came from,” Carmona wrote.
Flake responded Wednesday with a letter asserting citizens’ rights to free speech and participation in the democratic process.
“I am honored to have the support of individuals and organizations in Arizona and across the country,” Flake wrote. “(I) wouldn’t dream of asking them to forfeit these rights.”
Even if both men had agreed to reject super PACs, it would not have stopped special-interest money from entering the race, Jones said. If a super PAC is truly independent, as the law requires, she said there is nothing Flake could do.
While Carmona’s concern over outside influence from nebulous organizations may be warranted, there also may be some strategy in play.
“Carmona is going to have more trouble raising money than Flake will,” Jones said. She added that Carmona might be able to “slow down fundraising on Flake’s side” by spotlighting the outside groups that provide support to the Republican.
Flake spokesman Andrew Wilder said the campaign was comfortable starting with the same amount of money as Carmona because both sides expect to raise more if needed.
“You’d always like to have a little bit more, but now that we’re through the primary, donors who were reluctant to give in a contested primary might open up new possibilities for fundraising,” Wilder said.
Carmona’s campaign did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday. The Club for Growth, a super PAC that supported Flake through the primary, declined to comment.