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Is Jeff Flake the GOP Senator Most Vulnerable in a Primary?

Republicans are worried the Arizona senator’s penchant for criticizing Trump has landed him in trouble with GOP voters

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., speaks with reporters about immigration. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., speaks with reporters about immigration. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Jeff Flake has vocally criticized his party’s freshly elected president, raised little money, and backed a moderate approach to an immigration overhaul. 

In other words, the first-term senator from Arizona has all but begged a Donald Trump-like Republican to run against him. Now, his friends and allies fear that’s exactly what will happen — with no guarantee that the incumbent lawmaker will win. 

To many GOP officials, no Republican senator is more vulnerable in a primary next year than Flake. The 54-year-old, according to one strategist who reviewed polling data last month, is less popular among likely GOP primary voters in Arizona than even John McCain, who for years has had a famously rocky relationship with his party’s base. The poll showed almost as many primary voters disliked Flake as liked him. 

And although he has already drawn a challenger — former state Sen. Kelli Ward, who ran unsuccessfully against McCain last year — his supporters are more worried about another foe, state Treasurer Jeff DeWit.

DeWit was a strong Trump supporter, serving as chairman of his Arizona campaign before becoming his national campaign’s chief operating officer. And people close to Flake worry that DeWit could potentially exploit the senator’s adversarial history with Trump. Flake routinely criticized Trump’s conduct during the campaign, culminating in a tense showdown on Capitol Hill in July.

An incumbent senator has many advantages in a primary, including institutional support, name recognition and money. But none of those things might matter if the combative Trump — the leader of the Republican Party with an unrivaled bully pulpit — becomes personally involved in the race, a possibility that scares Flake allies above all else.

“Obviously, you hope Republican presidents support their incumbents,” said Steve Voeller, Flake’s former chief of staff. “But … that remains to be seen.”

Remain calm

Republicans who support Flake aren’t panicking. They’re convinced that if he starts doing the right things now, he should survive a tough primary and cruise to victory in the general election.

To that end, officials with the National Republican Senatorial Committee have already been dispatched to assist in the senator’s fundraising, which has lagged during his first four years in office.

At the end of September, Flake had only $594,000 on hand. By comparison, GOP Sen. Rob Portman, who ran a model campaign en route to winning re-election last year, had $5.5 million on hand at the same point.

Officials are confident that Flake, who they say makes a point of avoiding fundraising events before his re-election cycle begins, will raise a lot of money fast.

Flake allies are also signaling that the lawmaker, who has frequently defied his party in the past, will look for areas of cooperation with the incoming administration. The first test comes this week, when Flake will have a chance to confirm Trump’s picks for his Cabinet.  

On one of Trump’s most controversial Cabinet selections, he’s already signaled openness to the president-elect’s nominee.

“The fact that Condi Rice, James Baker and Bob Gates are recommending [Rex] Tillerson carries considerable weight,” Flake tweeted shortly after Trump nominated the former Exxon Mobil CEO to be secretary of State. “I look forward to the hearings.”

Friends describe Flake as fiercely independent, unwilling to break from his principles just to gain a political advantage. But he might not have to if, as expected, the legislative agenda of 2017 turns in his favor.

On a different page

Flake’s defections from the GOP have been concentrated on immigration (he was a member of the so-called Gang of Eight) and foreign policy (he backed President Obama’s decision to end the Cuban embargo).

On fiscal issues, however, he’s deeply conservative: The lawmaker earned a 97-percent lifetime score from the low-tax, free-market advocacy group Club for Growth. And with repeal of 2010 health care law and a tax overhaul expected to take up most of the early legislative calendar, he could have a chance to reassert his conservative bona fides.

“I can see, over a period of time, a warming of the relationship,” said Glenn Hamer, president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce. “It’s in everyone’s interest.”

Whether that’s enough to please the unpredictable Trump is anybody’s guess. But Republicans are hopeful it can only help.  

“There are going to be many, many places where Sen. Flake is going to be helpful,” Voeller said. “And we’ll see how that influences any decision [from Trump] to get involved in the election.”

Republicans are also hopeful that Vice President-elect Mike Pence will help bridge the gap between the senator and the White House: Flake and Pence, who both previously ran conservative think tanks and served in the House together, are personal friends.

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