Immigration is being discussed in a surprising way in Arizona's tightly-contested Senate contest.
Arizona Republicans in recent years have trumpeted their efforts to crack down on undocumented immigrants in the state. But the politics surrounding immigration in Arizona have recently become more moderate, and GOP Senate candidate Jeff Flake is also talking up his past efforts to work across the aisle on comprehensive immigration reform. Democrats, however, say that Flake, like the rest of his party, abandoned those efforts years ago.
During his final debate Thursday night with his Democratic challenger Richard Carmona, Flake said he worked with Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Illinois) on comprehensive immigration reform while the legislation was before Congress in 2006 and 2007.
"My record in Congress has been one to reach across the aisle. I've worked on comprehensive immigration reform ever since I got to Congress. I worked with Luis Gutiérrez. I worked with Senator Kennedy. We tried to get comprehensive reform through. Unfortunately, we can't get the trust level until we have a secure border," Flake said.
But Gutiérrez thinks Flake abandoned his support for a comprehensive fix in order to run for office, a sentiment Carmona pointed out in his rebuttal.
"The congressman talks about his bipartisanship, but the fact is that's not true," Carmona shot back during the debate. "The fact is that when he talks about Congressman Gutiérrez about immigration, I called Congressman Gutiérrez spokesman. His words were, 'Congressman Flake abandoned me on immigration. When it was convenient he was with me. When he wanted to be a senator, he left."
Gutiérrez backed up Carmona's remarks in a statement released after the debate.
"Congressman Flake was once a close ally on the immigration reform issue to secure the border, create legal immigration channels, and get the millions of immigrants who live here into the system and on-the-books, but he abandoned his role in immigration reform because of pressure from the far right of the Republican Party. He voted against the DREAM Act, a modest measure that would have been a stepping stone to more important reforms and we were able to pass it in the House without any help from him. There used to be bipartisan support for sensible immigration measures in Washington, but Jeff Flake is an example of the Republicans that simply walked away from positions they used to support with passion and conviction."
Flake and Carmona are virtually tied heading into the final days of the campaign, according to a polling average compiled by RealClearPolitics. And a key part of Carmona's strategy has been to energize Latino voters and independents around his candidacy, while painting Flake as an unacceptable alternative, partially because of his stance on the issue of immigration.
Meanwhile, Flake has charged that Carmona's temperament -- especially his treatment of women -- make him unfit for office.
Arizona still has its fair share of hardliners on immigration, such as Sheriff Joe Arpaio, but it's notable how the conversation has shifted over the past year.