Sen. Jeff Flake’s decision not to run for reelection opens up a wild race to replace him in a 2018 Arizona contest, yet his departure also comes as bad news to Republican and Democratic challengers already running.
Republican Kelli Ward had counted on taking on a wounded Flake, who has slumped in popularity as he has publicly criticized President Trump in a state that voted for the president in 2016. Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, on the other hand, had counted on facing either Flake or the controversial Ward in a general election, giving Democrats their best opportunity in years to pull the seat into their hands.
Now, Arizona politicians expect a renewed push among Republicans to expand their roster of challengers to Ward, which gives her a tough race in the primary and also may give Sinema a far more complicated path in a general election. In short, the open seat may simultaneously cause problems for both the right wing of the Republican Party and for Democrats.
Several Republican members of Congress, as well as a favorite of Trump’s, Arizona state Treasurer Jeff DeWit, were believed to be looking at the race in the hours after Flake’s surprise announcement in Washington.
“This is a free-for-all,” said Arizona-based Republican pollster Mike Noble. “Everyone’s phones are blowing up.… A lot of people are going to be looking at this very closely.”
If Flake’s announcement was a surprise, his straits as he sought his second term were not.
The senator earned Trump’s enmity when he criticized the then-presidential candidate during the 2016 campaign, and the feud between the two exploded anew this year with the publication of Flake’s book, “Conscience of a Conservative.”
The book lanced the Republican Party and Flake’s colleagues for, in his words, their “abdication” of responsibility to stand up against the president as he coarsened politics and divided the nation. He returned to that theme in his extensive remarks on Tuesday.
Although he couched his resignation in terms of high principle, polling in the race so far has illustrated how little room Republican primary electorates provide for a candidate who openly crosses Trump. In a survey by HighGround consultancy in August, Flake trailed Ward in a primary matchup, with 29% to her 43%. He also ran well behind Sinema in a hypothetical general election, with 33% to her 41%.
In Washington, Flake was lauded by fellow Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain as a senator who would “stand up for what he believes … knowing full well that there would be a political price to pay.”
In Arizona, the verdict was harsher, as several Republicans indicated that Flake had come to see that continuing in the race would only risk a Republican hold on the seat.
“There’s no question he’s gotten very deep into the numbers and there was simply no path for victory,” said Arizona-based Republican consultant Constantin Querard.
The Arizona race illustrated some of the same angry divisions between factions of the Republican Party that played out last month in a special primary election for a Senate seat in Alabama. That race was won by Roy Moore, a candidate backed by former White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon; Moore defeated appointed Sen. Luther Strange, who was supported by most of the Republican establishment. Trump also backed Strange, although he sometimes seemed uncertain of his choice.
In Arizona, Trump had yet to officially support a candidate, but strategists in the state say he wasn’t shy about asking allies to consider the race. In a raucous appearance in Phoenix in August, he derided Flake without mentioning his name.
“Nobody wants me to talk about him. Nobody knows who the hell he is,” Trump said. The next day, on Twitter, he declared that he was “not a fan of Jeff Flake, weak on crime & border!”
Bannon, meanwhile, appeared in Arizona earlier this month on behalf of Ward. He vowed that establishment Republicans would “reap the whirlwind.”
Still, Ward, a former state senator, has been seen even by some Trump supporters as a weak general election candidate. She was soundly defeated by McCain in 2016, and recently, in the midst of widespread expressions of sympathy for his brain-cancer diagnosis, said he should resign.
Without the unpopular Flake to campaign against, she may have a more difficult case to make to voters.
“It has removed the villain from the race,” Querard said.
Complications unique to Arizona may affect the decisions of others considering a run. Republican members of Congress said to be interested in upward movement — a list including Reps. David Schweikert of the Phoenix area, Paul Gosar of western Arizona and Martha McSally of the Tucson area — would have to take on Ward and by extension Bannon’s forces while forfeiting their current jobs.