The animus between Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake is escalating to the point of no return.
The feud has affirmed how otherworldly this year has been. Consider this: The GOP’s standard bearer has now attacked both of Arizona’s U.S. senators, who are also Republicans – John McCain for being captured in Vietnam and Flake over his refusal to support Trump in November.
And as some party officials have been forced to pick sides, others worry about what the acrimony means for November and beyond.
Depending on whose side is speaking, Flake is either standing up to Trump in a quest to salvage his party’s future, or he is in grave error and is making it doubly difficult for the GOP to win races this November.
Against this backdrop, Robert Graham, the chairman of the Arizona Republican Party, has called out Flake for refusing to jump on the unity bandwagon. He noted that Trump’s mockery of McCain’s war record took place during the primaries – not recently – while Flake has been routinely – “almost weekly” – critical of Trump.
Graham said Flake’s comments are counter-productive.
“Again, nobody’s suggesting that he doesn’t say anything. It’s his mouth, his freedom, his First Amendment right to say what he wants,” Graham said of Flake. “But the reality is that, if you kicked a hornet’s nest, there’s a high chance that a bee is going to come out and possibly sting you, and I think that’s ultimately what’s happening.”
One source close to both Graham and Flake, who spoke on condition anonymity in order to provide a more candid assessment, said Graham, whose job as party chief is to win votes for Republican candidates, is frustrated that he can’t pull everybody onto the same page, while Flake is likely just as dismayed that not more in his party are standing up to someone as incendiary as Trump.
But others said Flake has no choice but to publicly call Trump out, even if it invites a backlash.
“Trump is so opposite of who Jeff Flake is that Flake has refused to give in to it,” said Tyler Montague, a GOP activist.
In a series of tweets on September 4, Trump had called Flake “weak and ineffective” after the senator said on CBS News “Face the Nation” that it has become “increasingly difficult to see that he’s going to change, so I don’t expect that I’ll be able to support him in November.”
Trump responded in kind: “The Republican Party needs strong and committed leaders, not weak people such as @JeffFlake, if it is going to stop illegal immigration.”
Flake’s declaration that he likely can’t support Trump in November is the culmination of a months-long introspection pitting Flake’s opposition to Hillary Clinton against his frustration at Trump’s inability to pivot as a general election and the GOP’s nominee.
Flake had been holding out support for the GOP nominee in the hopes that he would shift his tone and somehow moderate his positions.
The two had a tense standoff when Trump visited Republican U.S. senators a couple of months ago Flake he introduced himself to the GOP nominee this way: “Yes, I’m the other senator from Arizona – the one who didn’t get captured – and I want to talk to you about statements like that.”
In June, Flake said Trump needs to scrap his immigration proposal and walk back his proposal to ban Muslims from immigrating to the U.S.
More recently, Flake has been sounding the alarm that Trump’s candidacy is making Arizona ripe for Clinton to turn the state blue.
“I don’t think he should win as he continues to campaign as he is, taking the kinds of positions he’s taking and the language he’s using,” Flake said last month, as the senator became even more frustrated at the possibility that Trump is setting back the party’s gains among minorities and millennials.