Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake’s re-election race is becoming a case study in the GOP’s convulsions among the establishment, a furious base and angry donors.
After bucking Donald Trump in a state the president won, Flake is bottoming out in polls. Yet Republicans look like they may be stuck with a hard-core conservative challenger who some fear could win the primary but lose in the general election.
A White House search for a candidate to replace former state Sen. Kelli Ward in the primary appears to have hit a wall. And now conservatives want to turn Arizona into the latest example of a Trump Train outsider taking down a member of the GOP establishment.
“People are fooling themselves if they think Jeff Flake is anything but a walking dead member of the United State Senate,” said Andy Surabian, whose Great America Alliance is backing Ward.
“I don’t see how he survives a primary. I don’t see how he survives a general. The numbers just don’t add up,” added Surabian, who worked at the White House as an adviser to Steve Bannon, then the president’s top strategist.
Despite discontent among some Republicans over Ward, Bannon met with her last week at a conservative conference in Colorado Springs to encourage her campaign, according to a Republican official who spoke on condition of anonymity to disclose the previously unreported private meeting.
Ward unsuccessfully challenged Arizona’s senior senator, John McCain, in last year’s election, losing in the primary by a wide margin. But in Flake, she would face a more vulnerable candidate at a moment when the GOP establishment is on the defensive, facing a simmering anti-incumbent mood heightened by Republicans’ failure to make good on seven years of promises to scrap Barack Obama’s health care law.
Flake is in danger of becoming the latest victim of this voter wrath. Yet, rather than making an effort to soothe pro-Trump GOP voters, he’s all but dared them to take him down by kicking off his campaign with an anti-Trump manifesto, “Conscience of a Conservative,” a book in which he bemoaned his party’s failure to stand up to Trump in last year’s presidential race.
“We pretended that the emperor wasn’t naked,” Flake wrote.
Trump, in turn, has lashed out at Flake on Twitter, calling him “toxic,” and praised Ward. White House officials say there’s little chance Trump will have a change of heart over supporting Flake. One official, speaking on condition of anonymity to disclose private deliberations, said Trump is irritated not only by Flake’s public criticism, but by what Trump sees as the senator’s attempts to use his critiques of the president to gain attention.
Nevertheless, Flake, 54, insists he won’t be getting out of the race. The primary is Aug. 29.
“We always knew we would have a tough primary. We always knew we would have a tough general,” Flake said in a brief interview at the Capitol. Asked about Trump’s opposition, Flake smiled and said, “There’s a long time between now and next August.”
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has protected vulnerable GOP senators in the past, but his ability to do so in the future was thrown into question last month by Sen. Luther Strange’s loss to rabble-rousing Roy Moore in a runoff in Alabama. A McConnell-aligned super PAC had spent around $9 million to help Strange.
Trump was encouraged by McConnell and others to back Strange, a decision which he reportedly now regrets and which only added to the frictions between the president and the Senate leader. Flake’s candidacy could provide occasion for yet more conflict between the two, given the possibility that they will be on opposite sides in the primary.
Adding to Flake’s problems, donations to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP campaign arm, have dried up after the GOP failed to deliver on repealing and replacing the Obama health law. Some donors say they intend to withhold money from incumbent senators like Flake until they start delivering on Trump’s agenda, a strategy encouraged privately by some top White House officials.
“Donors are going to start cutting off funding for all senators until they get Trump’s initiatives passed,” said Roy Bailey, a Trump supporter and fundraiser in Texas. “I think there’s a real kind of movement going around that is catching momentum.”
Flake’s campaign points to strong fundraising numbers and upcoming events including a fundraising visit Monday by Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio. But Flake can’t even count on support from fellow members of his Arizona delegation. GOP Rep. Trent Franks demurred when asked if he would be supporting Flake for re-election
“I’m probably not going to, for a lot of reasons, not going to address that,” Franks said. “Obviously, Sen. Flake knows how profoundly bewildered and disappointed I was with his actions that, in the general election last year, if everyone had followed that line of reasoning, would have resulted in Hillary Clinton’s election.”
Franks’ name is one of several that have circulated as potential primary challengers to Flake, along with Rep. Paul Gosar, state university board member Jay Heiler and former state GOP Chairman Robert Graham. Several Republicans said the White House has been searching for some alternative to Ward.
Yet Ward shows no sign of stepping aside, and another consideration, usually unspoken, is McCain’s brain cancer, which will likely mean another vacant Senate seat at some point in the future.
Ward’s erratic history, which causes mainline Republicans to view her as damaged goods, is underscored by comments she made after McCain’s July cancer diagnosis, where she urged him to step down and suggested she should be considered to replace him.
“Look, you see what her numbers were in the McCain race – I don’t know what would make us think different now,” said Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz. Whichever Republican emerges from the primary will likely face Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, seen as a strong candidate.
It’s all adding to a season of trouble for GOP senators such as Flake and Dean Heller of Nevada, who also faces a primary challenge from the right. The good news for Senate Republicans, who hold a 52-48 majority, is that they have an extremely favorable map next year that has them defending only two genuinely endangered incumbents, Flake and Heller, while Democrats are on defense in 10 states Trump won.
Werner reported from Washington.