In Arizona, a potential showdown between a Republican senator and the Republican president
Sen. Jeff Flake is among the most endangered Republicans running for reelection next year. But he’s not exactly acting like it. (August 1, 2017) (Sign up for our free video newsletter here http://bit.ly/2n6VKPR)
It’s not surprising to find an Arizona Republican smack in the middle of a poke-in-the-eye dust-up with the powerful. The only surprise these days is that the Republican in question isn’t John McCain.
McCain is in a fight of his own, having cast the final blow against the healthcare plan crafted by his fellow Senate Republicans and President Trump. In his home state, references to that vote prompt a shoulder shrug and a common Arizona refrain: “Just McCain being McCain.”
The newest set-to, however, involves the state’s junior Republican senator, Jeff Flake, a first-termer who may have blasted a big hole in his reelection campaign next year by publishing a book.
And not just any book. A book that swiped its name from one published a generation ago by Arizona’s revered veteran Sen. Barry Goldwater: “Conscience of a Conservative.” A book that vented about the Republican Party and what he calls his colleagues’ “abdication” of their responsibility to stand up against the party’s embattled president.
Republicans are in “denial” about Trump’s “erratic executive branch,” Flake wrote, saying that the party’s “unnerving silence” would be as if Noah had watched the flood rising and decided to focus on other things. “At a certain point, if one is being honest, the flood becomes the thing that is most worthy of attention,” he wrote. “At a certain point, it might be time to build an ark.”
For Arizonans, that has set up a question: Will the president, who famously punches back when hit, seek revenge on Flake by summoning a Senate challenger?
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders would not rule out that possibility when asked about it Wednesday.
“I’m not sure about any potential funding of a campaign,” she said. “But I think that Sen. Flake would serve his constituents much better if he was less focused on writing a book and attacking the president, and [more on] passing legislation.”
“If he did get involved, the money would not be an issue,” said one Republican strategist. Like several others, he spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid being caught in a dicey internal party fight.
Typically, presidents back away from primary battles to focus on the opposing party. The entire mechanics of a political party are set up to protect its incumbents. Attempting to overthrow Flake would put the president at odds with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is working to preserve the party’s narrow margin in the Senate.
But when the president is Trump, nothing is typical.
“It would seem to be a break in form if the president, himself, did something like that, but he has certainly shown a willingness to buck certain positions,” said Constantin Querard, a GOP consultant in Phoenix.
Were the president to put his imprimatur on a candidate, it would set up a roaring battle between the ascendant Trump wing of the Republican Party and a senator who has more or less been an establishment conservative, particularly when it comes to fiscal matters.
One problem for Flake is that he’s not necessarily seen that way within the state party.
Flake has long been suspect among Trump Republicans for his membership in the Gang of 8, the group of senators who worked to craft an immigration reform bill in 2013 that included a path to citizenship for those in the country without proper papers. While McCain also has had moderate leanings on that topic, Arizona often has rewarded political figures who vehemently favor harsher strategies.
Flake drew further suspicion when he sided with President Obama’s effort to liberalize relations with Cuba; Trump has since taken steps to partially reverse those policies. And Flake was open about his opposition to Trump during last year’s campaign.
There’s also the matter of Flake’s demeanor, a softer approach that doesn’t quite mesh with the rougher tones favored by Republicans in the era of Trump.
“Jeff Flake is just not the street fighter that McCain is,” said one Arizona strategist — to say nothing of Trump.
Flake’s defenders note that he has voted to support Trump’s positions 93.5% of the time, according to a calculation by FiveThirtyEight.com.
That reflects shared conservative views on a number of topics. But it’s not as strong as it might seem: By FiveThirtyEight’s accounting, Flake is 41st among the 52 Republican senators when it comes to voting Trump’s way. Or, as some in Arizona put it, more or less a moderate by today’s calculations.
Polling shows Flake’s relative weakness in the state. A survey released in July by Morning Consult showed that Flake was underwater in Arizona compared to Trump.
Overall, 50% of Arizonans backed Trump, compared with 45% who did not. Only 36% favored Flake, while 42% did not. Among Republicans — the bulk of next August’s primary voters — Trump was favored by 84%, and Flake by 51%.
But polls a year in advance of an election are notoriously iffy; McCain was thought to be endangered for part of his 2016 reelection campaign, but he won the primary by more than 12 points en route to reelection to his sixth term. It’s also impossible to know Trump’s trajectory between now and then; if his presidency remains highly troubled, Flake’s criticism may be seen in a more charitable light.
For now, Arizonans are mulling the shape of the Senate field. McCain’s primary opponent, former state Sen. Kelli Ward, has announced she will challenge Flake. Two other Republicans, state Treasurer Jeff DeWit and former GOP chairman Robert Graham, also are considering the race.
Both have ties to Trump — DeWit served as the Trump campaign’s chief operating officer — and they appear to have agreed that only one will run. But multiple challengers — say, Ward and one of those pondering the race, or unknown others — would shift the advantage to Flake by splitting the opposition vote.
McCain’s recent brain cancer diagnosis may further complicate the decision-making. While his seat normally would not be open until 2022, McCain’s illness has raised the odds of an earlier open seat that might strike some candidates as a better option.
All of that leaves Flake’s fate — or at least the contours of his reelection campaign — uncomfortably in the hands of Trump, the president who Flake asserts in his confessional has made the government “dysfunctional at the highest levels.”
Arizona pollster Mike Noble said that if Ward remains Flake’s only opponent, “he’ll cruise to easy reelection.”
“A vendetta causes more harm than good,” he said, adding that Trump’s “got bigger fish to fry: Russia, North Korea.”
Whatever shape the conflict takes as the primary nears, it strikes some as pointless given Flake’s conservative voting record.
“If you’re the Trump administration, you don’t like Jeff Flake but you need to work with Jeff Flake,” Querard said. “All of the ingredients were there for some sort of peace treaty.”
But then came the book, or, as Querard calls it, the effort to “poke your opponent in the eye literally for the point of poking him in the eye.”
“One thing defeats Jeff Flake for certain,” he said, and that is “if Trump’s team blesses a solid opponent. He’s really gone out of his way to encourage them to come and get him.”
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