Inside Flake’s Primary Reality

The senator is also gearing up for what could be a difficult general election.

Sen. Jeff Flake pauses as he answers a question while disapproving audience members hold up red cards during a town hall on April 13 in Mesa, Ariz.
AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin
Kimberly Railey
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Kimberly Railey
June 5, 2017, 8 p.m.

Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Jeff Flake of Ari­zona, who already faces one GOP op­pon­ent, is grap­pling with the pro­spect of a far-great­er threat: a primary chal­lenger with close ties to Pres­id­ent Trump.

After emer­ging as one of the pres­id­ent’s most out­spoken Re­pub­lic­an crit­ics last year, Flake may con­front a fight marked more by pro- and anti-Trump forces than what was once a com­mon tea party-vs.-es­tab­lish­ment di­vide.

Much of the fo­cus at this stage cen­ters on the po­ten­tial can­did­acy of Re­pub­lic­an state Treas­urer Jeff DeWit, who was the Trump cam­paign’s chief op­er­at­ing of­ficer. Re­pub­lic­ans are also keep­ing a close eye on Robert Gra­ham, the former Ari­zona Re­pub­lic­an Party chair and fel­low Trump loy­al­ist.

“It’s the $5 mil­lion ques­tion of wheth­er a big­ger-name op­pon­ent is go­ing to get in,” Ari­zona Re­pub­lic­an strategist Mat­thew Ben­son said. “If it’s DeWit, he has some statewide name ID and, most sig­ni­fic­antly, it’s as­sumed he would have the ro­bust sup­port of Pres­id­ent Trump.”

The state’s late primary fur­ther com­plic­ates mat­ters for Flake, who is ex­pec­ted to be tar­geted by na­tion­al Demo­crats.

The in­cum­bent’s sole Re­pub­lic­an chal­lenger, former state Sen. Kelli Ward, is already align­ing her cam­paign with Trump, a strategy that she pur­sued last year in an un­suc­cess­ful bid against Sen. John Mc­Cain.

But it’s DeWit and Gra­ham who are viewed as the pres­id­ent’s most nat­ur­al al­lies.

Reached by Na­tion­al Journ­al, DeWit said he had “no com­ment” about his plans. Gra­ham, mean­while, said he is not lean­ing to­ward run­ning “right now” but left open the pos­sib­il­ity.

“The short an­swer is ‘no’, but let me put a little caveat on that,” Gra­ham said. “On a daily basis, there is an in­cred­ible, high level of en­cour­age­ment to run. … You’ve heard a lot of can­did­ates that end up get­ting in be­cause of pres­sure or be­cause they think it’s the right thing to do. Who knows what’s go­ing to hap­pen?”

Gra­ham ad­ded that he and DeWit are re­ceiv­ing calls to run from people who were “very act­ively” en­gaged with Trump’s cam­paign and have “close prox­im­ity” to the pres­id­ent. He de­clined to share any names.

It is un­likely that both would run: Gra­ham said he would be “fully sup­port­ive” of DeWit and that he will de­cide his own in­ten­tions by Decem­ber.

Still, sev­er­al Re­pub­lic­ans ex­pressed doubt that either will chal­lenge Flake. Some GOP strategists spec­u­lated that DeWit is more in­ter­ested in a job in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. Oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans said Rep. Paul Gos­ar could be draf­ted to run if both DeWit and Gra­ham pass. In a state­ment to Na­tion­al Journ­al, Gos­ar spokes­man Tom Van Flein said “there has been a lot of in­terest by people in Ari­zona to draft him” but the con­gress­man is run­ning for reelec­tion.

In any case, a ma­jor ques­tion hanging over the race is how strongly, if at all, Trump would in­ter­vene for any can­did­ate.

“There’s been zero prom­ises that Pres­id­ent Trump will get in­volved with any­body’s cam­paign, but there’s al­ways the po­ten­tial,” Gra­ham said. “Every­one has a clear un­der­stand­ing that there’s not a great re­la­tion­ship between the pres­id­ent and Sen­at­or Flake.”

Ward, for her part, said in an in­ter­view that she has not yet con­tac­ted any­one in Trump’s or­bit for help.

“I think it’s something down the road as time goes on that per­haps we will con­sider,” Ward said. “But right now, we are run­ning our race.”

Flake fre­quently cri­ti­cized Trump’s be­ha­vi­or throughout the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, in­clud­ing dur­ing a tense ex­change at a private meet­ing with Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans shortly be­fore the Re­pub­lic­an con­ven­tion. Flake has con­tin­ued to re­buke Trump at times, though he not­ably has sup­por­ted the pres­id­ent’s Su­preme Court and Cab­in­et nom­in­ees.

Flake al­lies main­tained that the sen­at­or is pre­par­ing for a tough race, re­gard­less of who runs. In March, he brought on cam­paign man­ager Josh Daniels and re­por­ted pulling in an im­press­ive $1.4 mil­lion in the first three months of the year. Mitt Rom­ney also head­lined two fun­draisers for the sen­at­or Fri­day.

“The guy is rais­ing money in ways he’s nev­er done be­fore,” Ari­zona Re­pub­lic­an con­sult­ant Bri­an Mur­ray said.

Some Re­pub­lic­ans, mean­while, ex­pressed doubts about the vi­ab­il­ity of Ward’s cam­paign. She took in just $168,000 in the first fun­drais­ing quarter, and her cam­paign man­ager, How­ie Mor­gan, re­cently left after four months on the job, Na­tion­al Journ­al has learned.

“How­ie came to set up the cam­paign and the cam­paign of­fice. He ful­filled his du­ties and now the cam­paign is mov­ing on to the next phase,” Ward spokes­wo­man Jen­nifer Lawrence said.

Re­gard­less, Ward starts the race with far more name ID than the av­er­age in­tra­party chal­lenger after win­ning 40 per­cent of the primary vote against Mc­Cain.

“We are tak­ing her ser­i­ously,” Flake ad­viser Steve Voeller said.

Demo­crats plan to com­pete for the seat, no mat­ter the Re­pub­lic­an op­pon­ent. One Demo­crat, at­tor­ney Deedra Ab­boud, has already entered the race.

But Demo­crats be­lieve that their most for­mid­able can­did­ate would be Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, who had $2.8 mil­lion in cash on hand at the end of March. Phoenix May­or Greg Stan­ton and state House As­sist­ant Minor­ity Lead­er Ran­dall Friese, a sur­geon who op­er­ated on former Rep. Gabby Gif­fords after the 2011 Tuc­son shoot­ing, are also viewed as strong po­ten­tial con­tenders.

Party strategists, em­boldened by Flake’s nar­row win in 2012, said the state’s evolving polit­ics will make the race com­pet­it­ive. Hil­lary Clin­ton lost Ari­zona by less than 4 points, and Demo­crats are hope­ful about the Latino pop­u­la­tion’s grow­ing in­flu­ence among the elect­or­ate.

Still, Demo­crats are clear-eyed in a state that hasn’t elec­ted a Demo­crat­ic sen­at­or since 1988.

“A lot of us are real­ist­ic about what it takes to win there,” said Andy Barr, a Demo­crat­ic strategist who’s worked on mul­tiple Ari­zona races. “That said, if ever there was a time to take a shot in that state, this is it.”

Alex Rogers contributed to this article.
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