Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake’s bombshell retirement announcement on Tuesday vividly underscored the dangers awaiting Republican politicians who dare to criticize Donald Trump.
Flake is a deeply conservative lawmaker who has voted with President Trump on many of the White House’s big-ticket legislative priorities. But he was also running in a contested GOP Senate primary as one of his party’s most outspoken critics of Trump’s tone and philosophy—and some polls showed him badly trailing his opponent, hard-right former state Sen. Kelli Ward, who was seeking to make the race a referendum on Flake’s criticisms of the president.
On Tuesday, refusing to apologize for that position on Trump, Flake announced that he would not seek re-election—acknowledging, at the same time, how difficult the path to victory had become for him.
And in interviews, GOP strategists said that Flake’s predicament demonstrated just how challenging it is to run, in a GOP primary, as a Republican critical of Trump. For all of the polls showing Trump struggling in his national approval ratings, he remains wildly popular with the base voters who participate in primaries.
“There is a strong element of the GOP base that is favorable to Trump,” said veteran Republican strategist Chris Wilson. “There’s no good reason for a Republican elected official to alienate those voters.”
In a stunning speech on the Senate floor, Flake unpacked his decision to retire in detail, tearing into Trump and expressing a concern that some worried Republicans share: that their party is changing in fundamental ways, and it’s unclear how those Republicans who have disagreements with Trump fit in.
“It is clear at this moment that a traditional conservative who believes in limited government and free markets, who is devoted to free trade, and who is pro-immigration, has a narrower and narrower path to nomination in the Republican Party,” Flake said.
Flake is by no means the lone Republican in Congress willing to break with the president. Sens. Bob Corker and John McCain are frequently at odds with the White House—but Corker is retiring, and McCain just won re-election. Several other senators who, in tone or on votes, have broken with Trump aren’t up for re-election until at least 2020. Those who face voters sooner are generally avoiding conflict with the White House, in part a reflection of Trump’s enormous strength with the base.
“If you look at the map, incumbents that are up in very conservative states, where President Trump won by huge margins, the voters in those states are still very supportive of the president,” said a national Republican strategist involved in midterm races. “President Trump is very popular with Republicans in Arizona, which is why you saw Sen. Flake do what he did today.”
One big exception on next year’s map: Nevada, a state Hillary Clinton narrowly won, and where Republican Sen. Dean Heller faces a primary challenge as well. Heller, however, has been careful to make more overtures toward Trump recently.
Meanwhile, in Arizona, the race for Flake’s seat is now scrambled, though senior GOP officials sounded hopeful notes on Tuesday. They recognized Flake was struggling in the primary, and some feared that Ward would not be strong in a general election should she beat him. Names floating around Republican circles to compete for Flake’s seat against Ward now include Reps. Martha McSally, David Schweikert and Andy Biggs, and Attorney General Mark Brnovich.
“If you look at all four of them, but specifically the three House members, they’re going to be strong primary and general election candidates,” said the strategist. Referencing Ward and Democratic Senate candidate Kysten Sinema, the source continued, “There’s two people today who are probably having ‘What did I do?’ moments.”
Democrats concede that by the time of his retirement, they thought Flake was as weak an opponent as Ward. The GOP incumbent had voted for an unpopular Republican agenda on things such as health care — alienating Democrats — while regularly criticizing Trump, angering Republicans. He risked garnering little support from either in a general election, Democrats said.
“He was the man without a country,” said one Democratic strategist involved in Senate races, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the race.
But Democrats, too, are confident about Arizona, buoyed by a strong recruit in Sinema (who announced her candidacy in September) and the hope that Republicans will still weaken themselves in a destructive primary.
"Senator Flake’s retirement is another example of the divisiveness roiling Republican primaries,” said David Bergstein, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “These dynamics will continue to hinder Republican efforts in Arizona and whatever candidate succeeds in claiming their nomination will fall short of Kyrsten Sinema and her proven record of results for Arizona's working families."
Sinema already had more cash on hand to end September than Flake, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, and Democrats think the congresswoman’s relatively moderate approach and tone has a chance to win over independent voters.
The party—which is defending a host of seats in red states that Donald Trump won—considers the Arizona Senate race its second-best pickup opportunity of the midterm elections, behind the contest in Nevada.
But as Flake wrapped up his speech on the Senate floor, he looked past the midterms, reaching for a note of bipartisan optimism.
“This spell will eventually break,” he said. “That is my belief. We will return to ourselves once more, and I say the sooner the better. Because to have a healthy government, we must have healthy and functioning parties. We must respect each other again in an atmosphere of shared facts and shared values, comity and good faith.”