Flake Retirement Helps the GOP in Ariz. Senate Race
Sen. Jeff Flake’s decision to retire rather than seek a second term suggests a number of interesting possibilities for the future of the Republican Party in Arizona. Perhaps, as he suggests, this too shall pass. Or, as Ben Domenech suggests, perhaps this authenticates Republicans as the party of Trump.
This discussion is important, especially in its long-term implications. But as we draw closer to Election Day, I concern myself with the more limited questions of how events affect parties’ short-term electoral ambitions. This retirement is one of the rare instances where an incumbent’s departure improves a party’s chances of holding a seat. To understand this, consider four factors.
1. Arizona is still a pretty red state.
There has been an awful lot of discussion over the past couple of decades regarding Arizona’s leftward shift. There’s something to this. But . . . not as much as people think. Here is how Republican Arizona is, relative to the country as a whole as measured by partisan voter index, over the past few cycles:
The state was less Republican at the presidential level in 2016 than it was eight years ago, but we must also remember that native son John McCain led the GOP ticket back then. We should also recall that the Hillary Clinton campaign invested in Arizona for the first cycle in years, but the Republicans did not.
All in all, at least at the presidential level, the state was roughly as Republican as it was in the Bush years. If we look at the Cook PVI, it is R+5, which makes it roughly a Republican version of Oregon. If we look just at 2016, it is roughly a Republican version of New Mexico. By registration, it remains one of the few states where Republicans outnumber both independents and Democrats; in fact, Democrats are the third-smallest group in the state. Republicans were 36 percent of the vote in 2012, to the Democrats’ 32 percent; today those numbers are 35 percent and 30 percent.
While Flake won by only three percentage points in 2012, the difference between his showing and Mitt Romney’s was that the libertarian candidate took 5 percent of the vote in the Senate race vs. 1 percent in the presidential race. Democrat Richard Carmona received 46 percent of the vote in his race against Flake, while Barack Obama took 45 percent vs. Romney. The state is certainly not averse to populist Republicans either; Gov. Jan Brewer won by 12 points against a credible Democratic opponent in 2010.
None of this is to say that a Republican can’t lose. It is simply to say that this isn’t, say, Colorado, where the nomination of a populist conservative candidate would be problematic even in a Republican wave year (which this is decidedly not shaping up to be, at least for now). It’s simply to say that the Arizona electorate’s default position is to elect a Republican, and that the state is probably at the outer limits of places Democrats can win in a very good year (Republicans won relatively few states with PVIs beyond D+3, even in years like 2010).
2. Jeff Flake had destroyed his coalition.
All other things being equal, a party would rather have an incumbent run than a non-incumbent. The problem was that Flake had behaved in ways that probably limited his ability to win the general election, let alone the primary. The Arizona Republican Party is fairly Trumpish – Trump performed very well in the 2016 GOP primary, and populists had won a number of nominations to congressional seats. Flake’s very public anti-Trump stance was simply out of step with a large portion of his party’s base there. His polling for the primary against conservative former state Sen. Kelli Ward was nothing short of atrocious. It was highly unlikely that he would make it to the general.
His polling for the general election against Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema wasn’t particularly strong either. Flake’s problem was that he lambasted Trump, but had a very conservative voting record. So, unlike Sen. John McCain, he angered his base without doing anything to appeal to independents and Democrats. Quite frankly, a populist Republican really might have been a better general election bet, since Flake had alienated swing voters as well, while the populist might gin up the base.
3. This increases the chances of a more establishment conservative candidate winning the primary.
With Flake more or less dead in the water, Republicans were basically looking at a Ward-Sinema race, and doing so with a bit of dread. The open seat changes the calculus somewhat. A bit of what we were looking at in the polling really was Flake-specific. There are any number of statewide officeholders in the Republican Party who could probably perform better than Ward in the primary, without bringing all of her baggage (or Flake’s). Whether they will get into the race is another matter. In addition, the open seat raises the possibility of additional populist candidates running, meaning that if the establishment unifies around a candidate, that person could get through with less than 50 percent of the vote.
4. Sinema is not without baggage.
Finally, we should remember that Sinema is a good candidate, but not a political force of nature. Her wins in her Democratic-leaning district were often closer than they probably should have been (2016 being an exception). While her voting record has been relatively moderate, she will have to introduce herself to the state, and Republicans will work to define her in terms of positions and statements from her time as a state legislator (such as referring to herself as a “Prada socialist”).
None of this is to say Republicans will win the seat. I see this very much as a tossup, perhaps even with a slight Democratic tilt. But that’s probably better for Republicans than I would have rated it last week.