Po­ten­tial GOP show­down in Ari­zona

Jeff Flake’s cri­tique of pres­i­dent may hurt his Se­nate re­elec­tion bid if Trump strikes back with Repub­li­can ri­val.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - BY CATH­LEEN DECKER cath­leen.decker@la­times.com

PHOENIX — It’s not sur­pris­ing to find an Ari­zona Repub­li­can smack in the mid­dle of a poke-in-the-eye dust-up with the pow­er­ful. The only sur­prise these days is that the Repub­li­can in ques­tion isn’t John McCain.

McCain is in a fight of his own, hav­ing cast the fi­nal blow against the health­care plan crafted by his fel­low Se­nate Repub­li­cans and Pres­i­dent Trump. In his home state, ref­er­ences to that vote prompt a shoul­der shrug and a com­mon Ari­zona re­frain: “Just McCain be­ing McCain.”

The newest set-to, how­ever, in­volves the state’s ju­nior Repub­li­can sen­a­tor, Jeff Flake, a first-ter­mer who may have blasted a big hole in his re­elec­tion cam­paign next year by pub­lish­ing a book.

And not just any book. A book that swiped its name from one pub­lished a gen­er­a­tion ago by Ari­zona’s revered veteran Sen. Barry Gold­wa­ter: “Con­science of a Con­ser­va­tive.” A book that vents about the Repub­li­can Party and what Flake calls his col­leagues’ “ab­di­ca­tion” of their re­spon­si­bil­ity to stand up against the party’s em­bat­tled pres­i­dent.

Repub­li­cans are in “de­nial” about Trump’s “er­ratic ex­ec­u­tive branch,” Flake wrote, say­ing that the party’s “un­nerv­ing si­lence” would be as if Noah had watched the flood ris­ing and de­cided to fo­cus on other things. “At a cer­tain point, if one is be­ing hon­est, the f lood be­comes the thing that is most wor­thy of at­ten­tion,” he wrote. “At a cer­tain point, it might be time to build an ark.”

For Ari­zo­nans, that has set up a ques­tion: Will the pres­i­dent, who fa­mously punches back when hit, seek re­venge against Flake by sum­mon­ing a Se­nate chal­lenger?

White House Press Sec­re­tary Sarah Huck­abee San­ders would not rule out that pos­si­bil­ity when asked about it last week.

“I’m not sure about any po­ten­tial fund­ing of a cam­paign,” she said. “But I think that Sen. Flake would serve his con­stituents much bet­ter if he was less fo­cused on writ­ing a book and at­tack­ing the pres­i­dent, and [more fo­cused on] pass­ing leg­is­la­tion.”

In Ari­zona, Repub­li­can strate­gists be­lieve that Trump has the power to en­gi­neer Flake’s de­feat, par­tic­u­larly if he were to clear the field to a sin­gle chal­lenger and vouch for that per­son to his net­work of sup­port­ers.

“If he did get in­volved, the money would not be an is­sue,” said one Repub­li­can strate­gist. Like sev­eral others, he spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity to avoid be­ing caught in a dicey in­ter­nal party fight.

Typ­i­cally, pres­i­dents back away from pri­mary bat­tles to fo­cus on the op­pos­ing party.

But when the pres­i­dent is Trump, noth­ing is typ­i­cal.

“It would seem to be a break in form if the pres­i­dent, him­self, did some­thing like that, but he has cer­tainly shown a will­ing­ness to buck cer­tain po­si­tions,” said Con­stantin Quer­ard, a GOP con­sul­tant in Phoenix.

Were the pres­i­dent to put his im­pri­matur on a can­di­date, it would set up a roar­ing bat­tle be­tween the as­cen­dant Trump wing of the Repub­li­can Party and a sen­a­tor who has more or less been an es­tab­lish­ment con­ser­va­tive, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to fis­cal mat­ters.

One prob­lem for Flake is that he’s not nec­es­sar­ily seen that way within the state party.

Flake has long been sus­pect among Trump Repub­li­cans for his mem­ber­ship in the “Gang of Eight,” the group of sen­a­tors who crafted an im­mi­gra­tion re­form bill in 2013 that in­cluded a path to cit­i­zen­ship for those in the coun­try il­le­gally. Although McCain also has had mod­er­ate lean­ings on that topic, Ari­zona of­ten has re­warded po­lit­i­cal fig­ures who ve­he­mently fa­vor harsher strate­gies.

Flake drew fur­ther sus­pi­cion when he sided with Pres­i­dent Obama’s ef­fort to lib­er­al­ize re­la­tions with Cuba. And Flake was open about his op­po­si­tion to Trump dur­ing last year’s cam­paign.

There’s also the mat­ter of Flake’s de­meanor, a softer ap­proach that doesn’t quite mesh with the rougher tones fa­vored by Repub­li­cans in the era of Trump.

“Jeff Flake is just not the street fighter that McCain is,” said one Ari­zona strate­gist — to say noth­ing of Trump.

Flake’s de­fend­ers note that he has voted to sup­port Trump’s po­si­tions 93.5% of the time, ac­cord­ing to FiveThir­tyEight.com.

That re­flects shared con­ser­va­tive views. But the ar­gu­ment is not as strong as it might seem: By FiveThir­tyEight’s ac­count­ing, Flake is 41st among the 52 GOP sen­a­tors when it comes to vot­ing Trump’s way. Or, as some in Ari­zona put it, more or less a mod­er­ate by to­day’s cal­cu­la­tions.

Polling shows Flake’s rel­a­tive weak­ness in the state. A sur­vey re­leased in July by Morn­ing Con­sult showed that Flake was un­der­wa­ter in Ari­zona com­pared with Trump.

Over­all, 50% of Ari­zo­nans backed Trump, com­pared with 45% who did not. Only 36% fa­vored Flake, while 42% did not. Among Repub­li­cans — likely the bulk of next Au­gust’s pri­mary vot­ers — Trump was fa­vored by 84% and Flake by 51%.

But polls a year in ad­vance of an elec­tion are no­to­ri­ously iffy; McCain was thought to be en­dan­gered for part of his 2016 re­elec­tion cam­paign, but he won the pri­mary by more than 12 points en route to re­elec­tion to his sixth term.

For now, Ari­zo­nans are mulling the shape of the Se­nate field. McCain’s pri­mary op­po­nent, former state Sen. Kelli Ward, has an­nounced she will chal­lenge Flake. Two other Repub­li­cans, state Trea­surer Jeff DeWit and former GOP Chair­man Robert Gra­ham, also are con­sid­er­ing the race.

Both have ties to Trump, and they ap­pear to have agreed that only one will run. But mul­ti­ple chal­lengers — say, Ward and some­one else — would help Flake by split­ting the op­po­si­tion vote.

McCain’s re­cent brain can­cer di­ag­no­sis may fur­ther com­pli­cate the de­ci­sion-mak­ing. While his seat nor­mally would not be open un­til 2022, McCain’s ill­ness has raised the odds of an ear­lier open seat that might strike some can­di­dates as a bet­ter op­tion.

All of that leaves Flake’s fate — or at least the con­tours of his re­elec­tion cam­paign — un­com­fort­ably in the hands of Trump.

Ari­zona poll­ster Mike Noble said that if Ward re­mained Flake’s only op­po­nent, “he’ll cruise to easy re­elec­tion.”

“A vendetta causes more harm than good,” he said, ad­ding that Trump’s “got big­ger fish to fry: Rus­sia, North Korea.”

What­ever shape the con­flict takes, it strikes some as point­less given Flake’s con­ser­va­tive vot­ing record.

“If you’re the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, you don’t like Jeff Flake but you need to work with Jeff Flake,” Quer­ard said. “All of the in­gre­di­ents were there for some sort of peace treaty.”

But then came the book, or, as Quer­ard calls it, the ef­fort to “poke your op­po­nent in the eye lit­er­ally for the point of pok­ing him in the eye.”

“One thing de­feats Jeff Flake for cer­tain,” he said, and that is “if Trump’s team blesses a solid op­po­nent. He’s re­ally gone out of his way to en­cour­age them to come and get him.”

Ross D. Franklin

SEN. JEFF FLAKE may be court­ing dis­fa­vor by writ­ing in “Con­science of a Con­ser­va­tive” that the GOP is in “de­nial” about the “er­ratic ex­ec­u­tive branch.”

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