After less than four years away, former Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) will make a return run for Congress next cycle whether or not his successor, Rep. Jeff Flake (R), seeks re-election to the 6th district seat.
“I have committed to be in this race,” said Salmon. “I don’t even contemplate the idea that [Flake] is in this race.”
Flake could not be reached for comment on this story but his spokesman, Matt Specht, said only that the Congressman will “make a decision regarding his future soon,” a statement that leaves the door wide open for another run.
Flake has held the seat since 2000, when he was “handpicked” by Salmon, according to the former Congressman.
At that time, Flake pledged to serve only three terms, as Salmon had. That promise comes due in 2006, but Flake has continued to waffle over whether he will keep to it.
Both ambitious politicians are relatively young: Flake is 41; Salmon is 46.
Salmon insisted his only motive in announcing his candidacy even before Flake is re-elected this fall is to make sure his intentions were clear to other would-be candidates.
But he is also working to box Flake into leaving Congress by vowing to run no matter what the situation is in 2006.
“I believe I am a very good judge of character, and Jeff Flake has got character,” Salmon said.
Left unsaid is that if the current Congressman decides to run for a fourth time, it will be a major flaw in that character in Salmon’s mind and, he hopes, in the eyes of voters.
Given the demographics of the 6th district, which takes in the southern Phoenix suburbs including the city of Mesa, the Republican primary will almost always produce the district’s Congressman as it trends strongly toward the GOP.
Salmon originally won the seat in 1994 when then-Rep. Sam Coppersmith (D) made an ill-fated run against now-Sen. Jon Kyl (R) in an open-seat race. The Democrat lost that race 54 percent to 40 percent.
Salmon was easily re-elected in 1996 and 1998; few observers doubted he could have held the seat as long as he wanted had it not been for his term-limits pledge.
“Had I not set my term-limits pledge I would have stayed,” Salmon said.
He is making no such pledge for his planned 2006 race.
Forced out of office at the end of 2000, Salmon began running for the open gubernatorial seat.
After handily winning the Republican primary, he lost the 2002 general election to now-Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) by less than 2,000 votes out of more than 1 million cast.
In the face of a such a narrow defeat, Salmon claims he never considered making a rematch in 2006.
“Given the choice of being in Congress or being governor, I would rather be in Congress,” he said.
After winning Salmon’s blessing in 2000, Flake, the former head of the Goldwater Institute, emerged from a crowded Republican primary to win the then-1st district seat.
During his time in Congress, he has established himself as one of House Republicans’ most outspoken and leading conservatives.
With an eye on his term-limit pledge, Flake considered a primary challenge to Sen. John McCain (R) this cycle but passed after concluding, “I’d probably get whipped.”
He was challenged earlier this month by former state Sen. Stan Barnes (R) but won that race 59 percent to 41 percent.
At an August debate, Barnes charged that Flake was a “lame duck” in Congress due to his term-limits pledge.
In response, Flake told the audience that “I’ve long since passed the time when I thought announcing the date of my departure was a good idea.”
Choosing against a Senate bid has limited Flake’s future options, but he clearly remains ambitious for high office.
Flake has emerged as the leading opponent of Arizona’s Clean Elections law, helping organize a ballot initiative this year aimed at ending the public funding of campaigns for state offices in the Grand Canyon State.
But it would appear as though the next major statewide opportunity — the 2006 race to deny Napolitano a second term — is already an open-and-shut case.
Fellow Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R) has made no secret of his desire to challenge Napolitano and has traveled the state extensively in recent months bolstering his political organization for such a run.
Flake could pursue a primary challenge, but Hayworth is popular among conservatives.
A primary between Salmon and Flake in the 6th district would pit two seeming mirror-image politicians against one another.
It would also force tough decisions among some Members and staffers, including Flake’s current chief of staff, who formerly served as Salmon’s state director.
A Salmon-Flake primary could also create a dilemma for the interest groups that have supported them. Both Salmon and Flake have railed against wasteful government spending and as a result have won the support of fiscally conservative groups including the powerful Club for Growth, which has backed each of them in separate races.
“We run in the same circles,” Salmon said about his relationship with Flake. “I shared with him that I was going to run again.”