Bearing Drift colleague Andrew Hull brought up a sticky subject Sunday in a post where he noted, “My message to my fellow conservatives is simply this: acting as though Trump is infallible does both him and the country a disservice. … It seems, however, that a large portion of the Republican Party and conservatives have devolved into a group of yes men who perpetually have their lips welded to the President’s posterior, come what may.”
Today I am wondering what message is being sent to rank-and-file Republicans as the news spreads that Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) may be targeted by the White House itself for a primary in his 2018 re-election.
The White House has met with at least three actual or prospective primary challengers to Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake in recent weeks, a reflection of Donald Trump’s strained relations with the senator and the latest sign of the president’s willingness to play hardball with lawmakers who cross him — even Republican incumbents.
At a time when it would be expected that Flake, 54, would be heralded for standing up for his principles and applauded for refusing to be a yes man, he is instead facing a challenge with the help of Donald Trump who has reportedly threatened to spend $10 million of his own money against Flake:
Flake, a longtime Trump critic who refused to endorse the president during the 2016 campaign, is one of a handful of undecided Republican votes on the Obamacare repeal effort. He’s also one of the most vulnerable Republicans up for reelection in 2018.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why elected officials continue falling all over themselves to get in line behind Trump. We can expect it to be that way until, and if, a united front emerges of courageous and energetic leaders willing to return the GOP to the party of Lincoln.
It’s not that Jeff Flake isn’t doing his job for his constituents; in fact, he has an excellent conservative legislative record: Freedom Works 95%, Americans for Prosperity 98%, American conservative Union 94%, Citizens Against Government Waste 94%, Citizens Against Government Waste 96%, Club for Growth 97%, National Right to Life 99%, National Taxpayers Union: A.
No, the fifth-generation Arizonan who was raised on a cattle ranch in Snowflake and is the father of five, has served his District and neighbors as a fiscally conservative and principled representative, first in the U.S. House of Representatives (2001-13) and then in the U.S. Senate (2013-present). Indeed, the little town of Snowflake (population 5,644), located at an elevation of 5,682 feet in north-central Arizona, was named in part for Senator Flake’s great-great-grandfather when, in 1878, Mormon pioneers Erastus Snow and William Jordan Flake settled there. His roots go deep.
The reason to be challenged is simply and purely because Flake stood up to Donald Trump. And never back down.
Politico also noted:
The bad blood between Trump and Flake dates back to the 2016 presidential race, when Flake was frequently critical of the president. In the waning days of the campaign, Trump became so angry with the Arizona senator that he proposed bankrolling a 2018 primary campaign against him. Backstage before a rally in the state, the president vented that he wanted to find a challenger to run against Flake and that he’d spend $10 million out of his own pocket to defeat him.
Trump is keeping close tabs on Flake’s fortunes back home. During a meeting with a small group of state Republican Party chairs in the Oval Office on Tuesday, he asked Arizona GOP Chairman Jonathan Lines for an update on the race. Lines responded by telling the president that the state party did not get involved in primaries, according to three people familiar with the exchange.
Here is where it fell apart:
Months before the election, the senator said he wouldn’t endorse Trump, urged other Republicans to do the same, and declared that he wouldn’t be attending the GOP convention because he had to mow his lawn.
Instead of most Republicans joining him, Jeff Flake found himself among a handful who bucked the candidate. Even his senior Senator John McCain, after being called a loser by Trump because McCain was a prisoner of war who was captured by the North Vietnamese during Vietnam — Trump crudely commented, “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured” (never mind that Trump himself never served in the military) — endorsed Trump before withdrawing his endorsement after Trump was heard on tape bragging about grabbing women’s genitals because, Trump said, when you’re famous you can do that.
If Flake runs as an independent in Arizona, which has been rumored, he would be the latest to exit the GOP, following in the footsteps of Colin Powell, Joe Scarborough, George Will, Mary Matalin, Nicolle Wallace, and others. In fact, the Pew Research Center found that the GOP has lost 23 percent of Republican voters ages 18-29 since 2015.
Conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post wrote, “An open letter to Sen. Flake: Be the conservative who stands up to Trump,” and opined:
… this is an extraordinary opportunity for Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) to stand tall in a party of moral and intellectual Lilliputians who’ve sold their political souls to the devil by capitulating to Trump. We have substantial differences with Flake on several issues, most especially foreign policy, but he has earned our admiration by refusing to support Trump and by rejecting the howling mob’s call for protectionism and immigration restrictionism. Just as we seek common cause with Democrats with whom we have serious policy differences in order to defend democratic norms and the scourge of Trumpism, so, too, do we cheer on Flake if he remains resolute in opposing Trumpism.
Rubin then continues by including a letter addressed to Flake, noting his many accomplishments, and ends it with this:
What about 2018? Heck, if the White House wants to run anti-trade, anti-immigrant, pro-Russian Trumpkin stooges against you, there’s nothing to stop such tomfoolery. (If a bunch of them run, carving up the ever-decreasing pro-Trump vote, all the better.) Embrace the challenge and run a principled campaign to defend what the GOP used to stand for. Should you lose, as regrettable as that might be, you’ll be celebrated as a heroic figure, someone capable of leading a new center-right movement.
This is surely music to the ears of Democrats … the Republican president sitting in the White House taking aim at Republican elected officials who do not walk lock-step with him.
(Even as Flake pondered on the Senate health care bill that was opposed by Senators Susan Collins [Maine] and Rand Paul [Kentucky], two more senators, Mike Lee [Utah] and Jerry Moran [Kansas], defected, and Senator John McCain was home in Arizona recuperating from surgery to remove a blood clot. The Republican health care bill had collapsed and there was doubt it would be revived.)
But Flake is not backing down. As he told Ed O’Keefe in May when discussing the possibility of being primaried, “I think if you’re an elected official, you’ve got to do what you know what’s right. It’ll be a tougher path than I could have had, would have had, but I think I’ll get there.”
Time will tell if Jeff Flake has support from voters and his fellow representatives. We’ve all heard how Trump punches back harder but is it prudent for a sitting Republican president to go after a Republican U.S. Senator, and does it help or hurt the GOP? These are questions we as a party will definitely be navigating over time so let’s have the conversation.