Republican U.S. Senate candidates Jeff Flake and Wil Cardon offer primary voters a stark contrast, despite their similarities.
Both subscribe to the Republican conservative principles of limited government, free markets and individual responsibility. Both are Mormons from Mesa with five children and deep family roots in Arizona.
But the résumés they put before voters are strikingly different.
Flake, 49, has spent the past 12 years in the U.S. House of Representatives crafting and influencing legislation, and fighting against the status quo. He's trying to follow the path of Arizona's two sitting U.S. senators, John McCain and Jon Kyl, who also both served in the House before jumping to the Senate.
"I've demonstrated the willingness and ability to stand up for what's right," Flake said. "It's easy when you are a challenger to say what you are going to do. You can be all things to all people. But if you have a record doing that, people know where you are."
Cardon, 42, has never held public office. He's spent the past 14 years running the family commercial real estate and property management business. He believes it's time to usher out the "old guard" in Congress and replace them with businessmen like him who have offer fresh ideas.
"I'm tired of career politicians," Cardon said. "We need people with the right skill set in Washington, D.C., right now. We've done Einstein's definition of insanity of sending the same people over and over and over again to Washington, D.C., and expecting a different result. We need to change that."
When the race started Flake was better known because of his time in Congress. But Cardon has embraced the role of feisty underdog, aided by $7.6 million of his own money to spread his message and attack Flake.
The primary has been bruising, benefiting no one, perhaps, more than Tucson Democrat Richard Carmona, the former U.S. surgeon general under George W. Bush and current vice chairman of Canyon Ranch, who will take on the winner.
Millions of dollars have been spent on TV ads and mailers, each casting the other as a phony conservative unfit to replace Kyl, the Senate's Republican whip who is retiring after 18 years in office.
The bitterness led Kyl and McCain to formally endorse Flake, and to scold Cardon for "mischaracterizations" and "reckless" statements about Flake. The battle is reminiscent of 1976, when Republican Sam Steiger lost the Senate seat to Democrat Dennis DeConcini after slugging it out with John Conlan in a difficult primary.
Flake and Cardon are joined on the Republican ballot in the Aug. 28 primary by Bryan Hackbarth, a former mayor of Youngtown, and Clair Van Steenwyk, a retired food industry executive who hosts a conservative talk radio show. The two are considered longshots against the better-known and better-funded Flake and Cardon.
Raised on a ranch in a northeast Arizona town named after his family, Snowflake, Flake went on a Mormon mission in southern Africa following high school. After getting a bachelor's and master's degree from Brigham Young University, he worked for a public affairs firm in Washington, D.C.
He later lived in Namibia in southern Africa to run a foundation monitoring the country's independence process. In 1992, he moved back to Arizona to become executive director of the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based conservative public policy and research organization until he left in 1999 to run for Congress.
In Congress, Flake established himself as a reformer thanks in large part to his long battle to end earmarks, culminating in the House implementing a policy to stop the practice in 2010, and triggering the Senate to do the same the next year. The six-term congressman has been named twice by Washingtonian Magazine as the No. 1 enemy of lobbyists in Congress. In 2007, he lost his spot on the Judiciary Committee after he spoke about the failure of Republican leaders to stop earmark abuses.
He touts himself as Arizona's "battle-tested conservative" in ads, promising to take the same philosophy he used in the House to the Senate where he intends to rein in government spending.
Both Cardon and the Democrats paint Flake as a career politician beholden to Washington special interest groups, and paint him as a flip-flopper for his past support for comprehensive immigration reform.
Flake says he backed off somewhat on immigration reform after recognizing that "until we get better border security, we are not going to convince the country that we can do the other items."
Cardon says Flake is captive to special interest groups, calling him a "water boy" for the Club for Growth, a conservative group that has spent more than $1 million on TV and radio ads and mailers to support him. But Flake said the group shares his principles of limited government, low taxes and less federal spending.
Critics have also hit Flake for lobbying In Washington on behalf of a uranium mine in Namibia partially owned by Iran more than 20 years ago. Flake said he was working to help a country become independent from South Africa, and Iran's interest in the company wasn't even discovered by the U.S. government until 2005, long after his involvement.
"We have to have somebody who understands Arizona, understands the issues," Flake said. "We are replacing Senator Kyl, who has been the go-to guy for the Arizona issues. We can't afford for there to be a void in the Senate."
Outsider, jobs creator
The oldest of eight children, Cardon grew up in Mesa mixing cement at gas stations owned by the family business, the Cardon Group. He and his family lived in Brazil for three years during his childhood, and five of his siblings are adopted from that country.
Cardon became an all-state football player in high school and went to play at Brigham Young University. After going on a Mormon mission to Portugal and one more year at BYU, he transferred to Stanford University, where he played football and earned a bachelor's degree. He later earned a master's from Harvard Business School.
When he joined the family business in a leadership role in 1998, his father told him he didn't want to recognize the business in 10 years.
He says he took the company - which was founded in the 1930s by his grandfather and built on gas stations and convenience stores - and further expanded the real estate investment arm that began in the 1970s. He said he's multiplied real estate investments multiple times and created several new companies.
He calls himself a jobs creator in his campaign ads, estimating he's created at least 900 jobs. Some of those include jobs at quick service restaurants he's a part owner of, such as Subway and Dunkin' Donuts.
His business record came under scrutiny this campaign because of a 2008 audit by Immigration and Customs Enforcement of employment paperwork at 10 Phoenix Subway restaurants run by a company partially owned by the Cardon Group.
The ICE investigation found 30 of the 49 employees at that time, and 121 of the 269 former employees, at the Phoenix Subways were undocumented workers. The company was fined by ICE. Cardon says he was a 3 percent owner in the company at the time of the audit and was not involved in the hiring, firing or management of the employees.
Cardon says he's running this year because he is fed up with the direction of the country and wanted to put "skin in the game," as he likes to say. A political newcomer, he introduces himself as a fifth-generation Arizona who is a conservative businessman and outsider.
"We're already $16 trillion in debt, and we'll be past the point of no return unless we send a few businesspeople back to D.C.," Cardon said. "We need more doctors in politics. We need more mothers in politics. We need less career politicians. We need to get back to citizen government."
His grasp of Arizona's issues and lack of legislative experience is a red flag to some, including Sen. Kyl, who questioned Cardon's "naivete" about what is needed to be a U.S. senator, citing Cardon's criticism of Flake's international travels. Traveling abroad is necessary for anyone serving in Congress, Kyl said.
Cardon has raised far less money than Flake (or Carmona), but he has kept his campaign afloat by spending $7.6 million of his own money while raising just $802,500 from outside sources. He says he's willing to invest in himself because he's done well in the family business and because getting the country back on track is more important than his personal wealth.
"Would you rather have someone who put their own money in and is beholden to themselves and Arizona, or someone who is beholden to Washington, D.C.?"
On StarNet: Find a breakdown of Tucson-area races and candidates, plus voter resources and links to recent political coverage, at azstarnet.com/elections
Contact Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org