Flake Retirement Scrambles Arizona Senate Race
Jeff Flake’s announcement that he will not seek re-election holds significant potential implications for his party, throwing into question the GOP’s future direction as it veers toward President Trump’s rough-edged governing philosophy, and its chances to hold on to Flake’s Senate seat in 2018.
The freshman Arizona senator said Tuesday that he was increasingly out of step with the direction of the GOP and delivered a scathing indictment of its politics under Trump’s leadership.
His decision sent a second set of shock waves through Washington, coming less than an hour after Trump left a Capitol lunch meeting meant to unify the party behind his legislative agenda and several hours after the president and Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker -- who is also retiring -- traded insults on Twitter.
“We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country -- the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms, and institutions, the flagrant disregard for truth or decency, the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have all been elected to serve,” Flake said.
“Reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as ‘telling it like it is,’ when it is actually just reckless, outrageous, and undignified,” he added.
Though Flake had intended to seek re-election, he was on shaky ground before the announcement, with low approval ratings among GOP voters and facing a hard-line primary challenger backed by Steve Bannon, the controversial Breitbart chairman and former chief White House strategist. Trump, Bannon and their allies considered Flake -- who clashed with the president during the 2016 election and never came around to support him -- as their main target.
He said on the Senate floor Tuesday that there was a “narrower and narrower” path in a GOP primary for a “traditional conservative who believes in limited government and free markets, who is devoted to free trade, and who is pro-immigration.”
For their part, Democrats have been bullish on Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, a moderate, third-term congresswoman who has built a sizable $4 million war chest so far this year. Republicans had mostly resigned themselves to a bloody primary between Flake and former state Sen. Kelli Ward -- who lost the 2016 primary against Sen. John McCain -- with the nominee emerging battered. But Flake’s exit entirely changes the calculus on both sides.
Sinema, in a brief statement to reporters outside the House chamber, praised Flake’s character but didn’t respond to questions about his departure’s impact on the race.
“It has been an honor and a privilege to serve with Jeff over the years. He’s a man of great integrity and great character,” she said. “A true Arizonan through and through and I wish he and Cheryl the very best for their entire family.”
Still, her campaign shifted quickly, sending out an email to supporters asking if they would “rush a secure donation right away to help her secure this newly open seat?”
Rep. Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat who supports Sinema, told reporters the dynamics of the race had completely changed, but couldn’t assess whether her path would become tougher until the dust has settled.
“This is a big moment for us,” Gallego said. “We have to prove that we’re a swing state.”
On the GOP side, Flake’s exit creates a wide open race for the nomination. Several GOP sources said they expected multiple members from the House delegation -- Reps. Martha McSally, David Schweikert, Trent Franks and Andy Biggs -- to consider a run; Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich is also viewed as a potential candidate.
Two GOP sources said that McSally, a second-term House member and retired Air Force colonel, is likely the top recruit for the race. McSally faces a competitive House re-election, but is seen as a rising star within the party. She has already raised $2.7 million this year and has $1.4 million cash in the bank.
Rep. Steve Stivers, the chairman of the House Republican campaign committee, said he talked to McSally Tuesday and hopes she will stay in the lower chamber, but added there are other potentially strong candidates in her district should she run for Senate. One House GOP operative said they were not caught off guard by the potential for a statewide McSally bid.
Other sources said the primary implications are up in the air this soon after Flake’s announcement, and that with multiple House members and candidates looking at the race, it would take time for dividing lines to sort themselves out.
“You’ve got to look at the whole breadth of candidates interested before coming to conclusions either way,” said one GOP strategist. “These things aren’t won on paper anymore.”
Despite Flake’s exit, the race is likely to remain a flashpoint in the ongoing and divisive battle between Bannon and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell praised Flake’s service, while Bannon’s allies cheered his retirement, claiming it as a victory in their efforts to fight the GOP establishment.
Andy Surabian, a senior adviser to the Great American Alliance, a pro-Trump group tied to Bannon, said Flake’s exit is “a monumental win for the entire Trump movement and should serve as another warning shot to the failed Republican establishment that backed Flake and others like them that their time is up.”
Meanwhile, Steven Law, who runs the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC allied with McConnell, said that the “one political upshot of Sen. Flake’s decision today is that Steve Bannon’s hand-picked candidate, conspiracy-theorist Kelli Ward, will not be the Republican nominee for this seat in 2018.”