One of the rare senators who is both popular with his colleagues on Capitol Hill and admired by fans of liberty is Jeff Flake, the junior senator from Arizona.
But now he faces the political fight of life in a re-election bid. Will Flake’s popularity with policy wonks and politicos save him from opponents that include both Democrats and the White House?
Arizona, it is true, has been a Republican stronghold. Senior Senator John McCain replaced conservative icon Barry Goldwater in 1986. Both would end up securing the Republican nomination for president only to lose the general election.
In six statewide elections, McCain has never faced serious opposition in a general election, routinely winning re-election by double-digit landslides.
An avid outdoorsman and adventurer, Flake once spent a week alone on a desert island in the South Pacific. That’s a fitting symbolism for a well-liked policy wonk with an encyclopedic grasp of details but who has struggled to connect to voters. He has always been on the edge of falling into the political wilderness.
Arizona has always been Republican, but what does that mean?
After a decade in the House representing a safely Republican district, Flake narrowly won his seat to the Senate in 2012. Flake beat his Democratic opponent 49 percent to 46 percent, with a Libertarian candidate siphoning the remainder.
While McCain’s ideological commitments on domestic policy have always been nebulous and flexible, Flake is ideologically grounded within a libertarian-leaning conservative framework. He’s so grounded that he freely bucks his party when they are clearly wrong – as on the embargo of Cuba. Advocating trade and markets as the pathway towards democracy for Cuba, where his frequent trips to the island as a private tourist are marked by his pointed and repeated refusal to meet with Fidel or Raul Castro. Flake has always evinced a live-and-let-live disinterest in divisive social issues.
He’s also been pro-immigration and an advocate of comprehensive immigration reform, based upon a foundation of free-market economics, And unlike McCain, he hasn’t flip-flopped on that under the heat gets of an election cycle.
This independent streak, and a sense of honor and statesmanship, drove Flake’s controversial decisions refusal to endorse Donald Trump as the Republican nominee for president. Flake not only refused to endorse Trump, but proclaimed his refusal to vote for him. Flake stayed away from the Republican National Convention, offering the deadpan explanation that he needed to mow his lawn.
Soon after the election, when the president-elect was meeting with Republican senators at the Capitol, Flake tossed out this deadpan barbed reference to one of Trump’s early notorious comments: “I’m the other Senator from Arizona. The one who wasn’t captured.” The alleged disrespect by Flake was widely reported upon, as was Trump’s hostility to him.
Bellyaching on the right
It is almost unheard of for a president to back a primary challenger against one of his own party’s incumbents. Yet once again, norms and expectations mean little to Donald Trump. He has continued to fume over Flake’s lack of “loyalty.” The short-tempered and grudge-prone command-in-chief has reportedly mused about bankrolling a primary challenger to the tune of $10 million dollars. And then three prominent Arizona Republicans seen as potential challengers were spotted at the White House.
Those challengers include Jeff DeWit, the state treasurer of Arizona, and Robert Graham, the former chairman of the state GOP. Both are well-connected figures representing the odd confluence of establishment and Trumpkin opposition to Flake. Although friendly with each other, it is expected that if one jumps in, the other will not.
The most notable visitor, however, was Kelli Ward. The former state senator and far-right firebrand sparked outrage with her poorly-timed call for McCain to resign after his diagnosis with brain cancer. And she did this while simultaneously promoting herself as his potential appointed replacement.
Ward even launched a primary bid against McCain in 2016. She racked up conservative endorsements from Ron Paul, Laura Ingraham, and Phyllis Schlafly. Her streak of pettiness and vindictiveness is in many ways the exact opposite of Flake’s gentlemanly reputation.
Ironically, however, Ward may save Flake’s chances of securing his party’s nomination for re-election. Ward’s tea party presence in the race soaks up most anti-incumbent voter, without being able to go all the way and win. The Flake vs. Ward choice would likely bring swing voters in the middle of the party to vote for Flake.
Raising Arizona blues
Getting through the primary is only half the battle, of course. Although there are few announced Democratic candidates, retired astronaut Mark Kelly is rumored to be considering a bid. Aside from his time in orbit, Kelly is also the husband of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was severely injured by an assassination attempt in 2011. Kelly has since launched a nascent political career of his own, and Flake’s narrow win in 2012 makes him a ripe target.
Other possible Democratic nominees include Greg Stanton, the mayor of Phoenix, and Kyrsten Sinema, a member of the state’s U.S. House delegation. Either would likely muster national Democratic support for what is expected to be a key competitive race in the battle for the Senate majority.
One other announced Democratic candidate, a long-shot, has already provided an opportunity for Flake to demonstrate why he is both so respected and so loathed. The Muslim Deedra Abboud is an Arizona attorney who wears the traditional Islamic headscarf. Her announcement was met with predictable invective from the far-right. Flake, by contrast, apologized to Abboud on Twitter for the vitriol thrown at her, and offered kind words of encouragement to her.
The exchange was brief and merited only a short flurry of media coverage. But it showed the contrast between Flake’s vision of the GOP and that which is represented by President Trump.
Arizona’s 2018 senate race offers a chance to see which vision of Republicanism will prevail going forward: Flake’s or Trump’s. Can Democrats capitalize on the division among the GOP, and the shifting demographics in an increasingly Hispanic states, to catapult one of their own? Victory could mark the start of Flake’s ascent towards the White House. Defeat could mean the end of his career.
(Photo of Sens. Jeff Flake and Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, attend a lunch with members of Congress hosted by President Trump, who not pictured, in the State Dining Room of the White House in July 2017, by Michael Reynolds/Getty Images)