When Rep. Jeff Flake, a pro-immigration-reform Arizona Republican, said earlier this week he would run for the U.S. Senate in 2012
, he immediately set off a chain of political storms inside and outside his own party, both in his state and in Washington.
His campaign is no home-state affair. It could be a barometer of GOP unity nationwide, illustrating how the party would navigate the divisions between its two major wings -- its hard-line tea party advocates and its traditional conservatives.
Arizona already has been a player at the national presidential level, and Flake's candidacy may be the GOP's first electoral test of conservative solidarity
after its triumph in the midterm elections last year. Fractures are already in evidence in the U.S. House, where newcomers elected in large part with tea party support are breaking ranks with establishment leaders.
It wasn't a surprise that once Flake, 48, a fiscal conservative, announced his decision to run for the seat of retiring conservative Sen. Jon Kyl, the Senate minority whip, the extreme right wing that has dominated Arizona politics lately didn't waste time denouncing him
for bucking key items in their political agenda.
On three wedge issues -- immigration, gays in the military, and Cuba – Flake defies the conventional conservative line. He supports immigration reform, voted to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and supports ending the Cuba trade embargo and travel ban.
Still, some Republican organizations climbed on the Flake bandwagon early on. He already won the endorsement of the Tea Party group Freedom Works
and the Club for Growth
, which has raised more than $100,000 for his campaign.
Flake can certainly expect heavy primary opposition from candidates to his right, including the anti-immigrant Maricopa County (Phoenix) Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.), who gave Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential candidate, a run for his money last year.
Hayworth's popularity with Arizona's hardline conservatives ended up pushing McCain toward tougher views on immigration, gays in the military and other issues on which McCain, once celebrated as a maverick Republican, had taken moderate stands in the past.
The Democrats, likely to spot an opportunity in the split within the Arizona GOP, will probably try to put forward a brand name. Already, Janet Napolitano
, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and former Arizona governor, is being talked up in the political rumor mills. The Hill reported on Thursday that GOP operatives were looking for political documents from the Department of Homeland Security to use against Napolitano.
But some political commentators are starting to talk about Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, 41, for the U.S. Senate seat. Giffords is recovering at a Houston rehabilitation hospital from the gunshot wound to her head she suffered in an assassination attempt in Tucson on Jan. 8.
With no regard for good taste and sensitivity, a Washington Post blogger, Aaron Blake,
endorsed the talk of Giffords for the Senate seat, saying: "There are several examples of politicians dying but still winning their next election."
That comment and others along those lines brought a rebuke from Ken Rudin, an NPR blogger
. "Let's wait for her to come out of the hospital before we start anointing her as the Democratic great hope to win a Senate seat,'' he wrote. "It just feels unseemly. Or just plain icky."
As to the Republicans, at this early point in the race, Flake is the favorite. On the Democrats' side, only Napolitano and Giffords are seen as having a good chance to win.
Flake will have to soft-pedal some of his views in a state where immigration hardliners have wanted to get him out of office. He will have to turn around many in the large majority of fellow Arizonans (88 percent of registered Republicans)
who supported the state's tough immigration law in a poll last year.
It won't be easy. Flake sponsored the failed Strive Act in 2006 and 2007, a bill that included opening a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. This is sacrilege in Arizona, which sees itself as the last frontier against illegal immigration and is now proposing further legislation that would require hospitals to require immigrants seeking medical attention to present documentation on their status.
Asked on Tuesday if he would still defend his views on immigration, he told Mother Jones magazine, "I've always felt that nearly half of those who are here illegally didn't sneak across the border. They came here and overstayed." He emphasized that border security would have to come first.
Though he is a fiscal conservative and pro-life, he said he would campaign as a social moderate, regardless of retaliation from the right. Maybe Flake is Arizona's new political maverick.