Flake’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity feeds GOP Se­nate fears

In­cum­bent se­na­tor bot­tom­ing out in polls after buck­ing Trump

Las Vegas Review-Journal (Sunday) - - THE WEST - By Erica Werner and Bob Christie

PHOENIX — Ari­zona Repub­li­can Sen. Jeff Flake’s re-elec­tion race is be­com­ing a case study in the GOP’s con­vul­sions be­tween 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 States 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 de­manded 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: Flake is ‘toxic’

Trump, in turn, has lashed out at Flake on Twit­ter, call­ing him “toxic,” while prais­ing 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.

Do­na­tions prob­lem

Adding to Flake’s prob­lems, do­na­tions to the Na­tional Repub­li­can Sen­a­to­rial Com­mit­tee, the Se­nate GOP cam­paign arm, have dried up after the “Oba­macare” fail­ure. 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 it 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 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.

It’s all adding to a sea­son of trou­ble for GOP sen­a­tors like 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.

Pablo Martinez Mon­si­vais The As­so­ci­ated Press

Ari­zona Sen. Jeff Flake’s re-elec­tion race is be­com­ing a case study in the GOP’s con­vul­sions be­tween the es­tab­lish­ment, a fu­ri­ous base and an­gry donors.

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