When Air Force One touches down in Arizona on Tuesday, President Trump will bring the full weight of his office against the man who may be the most prominent figure in the Republican resistance, Sen. Jeff Flake.
Flake, a fiscal conservative with an independent streak, is a vulnerable senator running for reelection there. He has opposed Trump’s most defining policies—immigration and trade—and criticized his most controversial statements, including those interpreted as tolerating bigotry. Trump, in turn, is hell bent on finding someone to take out Flake.
At his rally in Phoenix on Tuesday, Trump may formally endorse a candidate to oppose him. Last week, the president boosted the insurgent candidacy of former state senator Kelli Ward, calling Flake in a tweet “WEAK on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate.”
“He’s toxic!” added Trump.
The battle between president and senator is emblematic of the divisions within the party exposed and inflamed by Trump’s election. Flake, who served in the House for a dozen years and as the executive director of the conservative Goldwater Institute before winning election to the Senate in 2012, is supported by the business community and the Republican establishment, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Ward, meanwhile, is a darling of conservatives and the pro-Trump Breitbart News, which is lead by former chief White House strategist Steve Bannon and heavily funded by conservative philanthropist Rebekah Mercer and her family.
Flake’s decision to take on the president is politically perilous. In 2016, Trump trounced Sen. Ted Cruz by 22 points in Arizona’s GOP primary and went on to beat Hillary Clinton by 3.5 points in the general election. Yet in his new book, Conscience of a Conservative (Barry Goldwater wrote a book with the same title in 1960), Flake goes right at Trump’s campaign, calling it “free of significant thought.” He said Republicans bought Trump’s “late-night infomercial,” mocking it as “Health Care for Everybody! Much Better, at a Fraction of the Cost! Free Border Wall! Super-Colossal Trade Deals! But Wait! There’s More!!” Michael Gerson, a former top George W. Bush aide, wrote in The Washington Post that the book represented “the single largest act of political bravery of the Trump era.”
By the time the book was published, Flake had already criticized the president for suggesting a judge of Mexican descent couldn’t do his job on account of his ethnicity, saying that Sen. John McCain (a POW in Vietnam for more than five years) wasn’t a war hero, calling for a ban on Muslims traveling to the United States, and threatening to send Hillary Clinton to jail.
The Arizona senator predicted Trump wouldn’t be the party’s nominee and called on Trump to withdraw from the race after The Washington Post published a video of Trump bragging about grabbing women “by the pussy” years ago. “America deserves far better than @realDonaldTrump,” Flake tweeted at the time.
Flake is committed to highlight his policy differences with Trump as he runs for reelection. In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Flake took a shot at the president’s tone towards immigrants illegally coming to the country, and reiterated his support for the Senate’s 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill, a measure many Republicans thought would be crucial to their future viability as a party.
“He’s fully embracing his position,” explained Sean Noble, an Arizona Republican strategist. “The hardcore anti-immigration folks were already voting against him.”
While Flake stresses that the immigration bill included substantial security provisions to better enforce hundreds of miles along the U.S.-Mexico border, he has been roundly criticized by many conservatives in the state because it endorses a path to citizenship for immigrants. “Amnesty and his opposition to real border security in a state like Arizona is going to get the most notice and cause the most friction for him and the base,” said Constantin Querard, an Arizona consultant to conservative candidates.
Flake is unpopular according to public polls, but will greatly benefit if no other Republican aside from Ward enters the race, according to political strategists in Arizona. Ward lost her challenge to McCain last year, after the senator’s allies highlighted a town meeting she called to discuss “chemtrails,” a conspiracy theory holding that “condensation trails” from airplanes cause health hazards. Ward was forced to disavow the theory. She recently called for McCain to consider stepping aside after the senator received his brain cancer diagnosis.
Even the White House is reportedly divided on whether to back Ward.
“Flake will beat Kelli Ward,” emailed Bryan Lanza, a former Trump campaign operative.
Flake’s supporters say that he has the bona fides to make it through the primary. Glenn Hamer, the president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, said Flake has an “outstanding conservative record,” including the senator’s long effort to ban earmarks that has endeared him to those who want, as the president says, to “drain the swamp.”
“He’s as decent and honorable as people come,” said Hamer. “He’s the type of person we want in elected office, regardless of party. He’s the type of person I want my kids to grow up to become.”
Even his conservative critics say that Flake’s attacks on Trump will help him in the general election, where he may face a strong opponent should Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema decide to run.
But before that, Flake has to weather Trump’s barbs. In a statement, his campaign welcomed the president.
“The president is always welcome in Arizona,” said spokesman Will Allison. “Senator Flake is focused on fighting for our state, and he hopes the president will speak constructively about moving forward with tax reform, border security, and other important issues facing our country. “
But plenty of Arizona Republicans support the president in the battle of words. Eric Morgan, who supports Ward, said that he’ll go to the rally on Tuesday to get the “real story” from Trump that he doesn’t think mainstream news media provides.
“He’s going to get people fired up,” he said. “I know Jeff Flake has not been too supportive of Donald Trump, and I expect the favor is going to be returned.”
“That’s one thing I love about him [Trump], you never know what he’s going to say,” Morgan added.
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