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.”
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