Last month, we spent some on time on the trail with Rep. Jeff Flake, the GOP front-runner in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).
Below are excerpts from our interview with Flake after a town hall meeting in Fountain Hills, Ariz.
1. What are going to be the big issues in the race come November?
“Obamacare. That’s going to be big. For any supporter of Obamacare, that’s a heavy anchor to drag around. A really heavy anchor. ... But then, just overall, debt and deficit; spending; and taxes and regulation. For Richard Carmona, having the president’s support, that’s nothing I would want to tout very loudly. And I think that he’ll be reluctant to campaign with the president. I would welcome the president to come here and campaign with my opponent.”
2. What do you make of Carmona’s past work in a Republican administration, his registration as an independent and now his Senate candidacy as a Democrat?
“He does sound a bit confused. But you know, the bottom line is the president called him and talked him into running. And I haven’t seen any daylight in any of the public pronouncements that he’s had. Any daylight between the president’s policies and his own. Maybe that’s because he hasn’t thought very deeply about his own positions, but I’ve seen no daylight.”
3. Why did you decide to run?
“Well, this is an extremely important election. We have, let’s face it, a dysfunctional Senate. As I mentioned in there many times. We have a Senate that cannot undergo its most basic function — passing a budget and going through regular order. So, we’ve got to change the Senate. And then to do that, we’ve got to make sure that all the Republican seats remain Republican, and pick up a few more. And then Senator Kyl’s been a great senator for the state. We’ve had a tradition in Arizona — in 100 years, we’ve only had 10 U.S. senators. They tend to serve a long time. Only 10 in 100 years. So we’ve got to choose carefully.”
“And as I mentioned in there, so many issues having to do with the kind of state Arizona is ... and the regulations that the president and his administration keep imposing on the state. It seems that every time Arizona tries to pull itself up by its bootstraps, we get kicked again by the administration.”
4. You’ve been a proponent of comprehensive immigration reform in the past, but you’ve since come out in favor of securing the border before undertaking other reforms. Why?
“What I have said is we have to have comprehensive reform. We have to have it. But those of us who have pursued it — myself, Sen. Kyl, Sen. [John] McCain — have realized that that is a dead-end. We have beat our heads against the wall for a long time. And until we have a more secure border, nobody’s going to trust the federal government to move on with the other elements of comprehensive reform. And the problem with this president is he’s not even pursuing comprehensive reform. He wants a few elements of it, but not really comprehensive reform. So, once we get a secure border, then we can move on to the other items.”
5. Democrats believe the opposition among many Latinos to S.B. 1070 (Arizona’s 2010 anti-illegal immigration law) will help them in the fall. Do you think it will be a factor in the race?
“Well, one thing I can tell you is Arizonans are incensed when the president tries to sue the state for trying to do the job that the federal government just won’t do. But then, I think Arizonans also recognize that it’s a very complicated picture and that it’s not just rounding up those who are illegal that’s the issue; that hasn’t been the problem. It’s what do you do when you’ve got them. What do you do to have a humane but effective policy to adjudicate the cases that are already here. And that’s the bigger issue.”
“But let me tell you, when we polled on this subject, we expected a majority of Republican primary voters to be concerned with immigration first and foremost. Seven percent listed immigration as the top item. When our economy is in such tough shape, other issues come to the fore. And you know what the top issue was, by a plurality at least? Obamacare. And then jobs and the economy and the pocketbook issues were well ahead of immigration.”
“So frankly, I think for anybody on the right or the left who expects immigration to be used as an issue to drive the elections, I just don’t see it. When I go around the state, there will be some times where I’ll give a speech like that and take questions and immigration will never be brought up, because so many other issues are more important right now.”
6. Was S.B. 1070 a bill you supported?
“Well, I was at the federal level when it was passed here. And I made comments when it was initially passed — the first version that they put out had some language that could be construed as unconstitutional, certainly. And I said at that time that that was imprudent. And then, the legislature went back in and removed that offending provision.”
“But I’ve just never been able to get excited about SB 1070, because I’ve known that that hasn’t been the issue. We’re able to find those who are here illegally easily enough. It’s, what do you do when you’ve got them? And then it’s very complicated. You’ve got families — one legal permanent resident, one citizen. One who’s not the resident or here illegally and children who are. It’s a very, very complicated arrangement so it doesn’t become simple anymore. So, for those who just say it’s as simple as sealing the border and enforcing the law, that’s never been the case. It’s a complicated issue.”
7. What action should the Supreme Court take on S.B. 1070?
“I hope they let it stand. Like I said, I think all Arizonans are incensed when the federal government tries to sue the state for doing what they simply failed to do. So, I hope they let it stand, but like I said, when they do, they’ll quickly realize that that was not the issue. The bigger issue is what do you do with a population that’s already here? How do you have a temporary worker plan that’s large enough to encompass the labor needs that we have in a way that makes sure that those who are here on a temporary basis are here only on a temporary basis? So, there are a lot of things that need to be done, and that’s why I’ve always supported a comprehensive plan. The problem is, until we have a more secure border, you just can’t get there.”
8. What do you say to Democrats’ argument that S.B. 1070 opens the door to racial profiling?
“I’ll just say that we aren’t addressing the real problem here. The first problem is we need a more secure border, and then the second, we need to deal with all the other elements of comprehensive reform that need to be done at some point. I’ll leave it at that.”
9. How do you feel about running on the same ticket with Mitt Romney in Arizona? You’ve been a supporter of his for a while.
“I am. I endorsed him long ago, so I won’t give you an unbiased opinion. But yeah, when you look at the positions he’s taken — and we know that if he’s at the top of the ticket, that the race is going to be about the economy. It’s going to be about jobs. And that gives us great comfort. The Democrats will try to make it about social issues or wedge issues or whatever else. But with Mitt Romney at the top of the ticket, it won’t be. It’ll be about jobs and the economy. And that is where we are comfortable. That is where Republicans can team up with independents and change the direction of the country.”
10. Who do you think Romney should choose as his running mate?
“I’m not going there. ... The real focus is on the top of the ticket. Vice presidential picks typically don’t change the equation that much. I’ll leave it at that.”