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Rating Change: Flake More Vulnerable in Arizona

Ongoing feud with Trump complicates GOP senator’s re-election bid

Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake is drawing heat from both sides as he seeks a second term next year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake is drawing heat from both sides as he seeks a second term next year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The acrimony between President Donald Trump and Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, which is already making the senator’s re-election bid more challenging, should only intensify during the president’s rally in Phoenix on Tuesday night. 

Flake is known as a Trump opponent, which could make him vulnerable in the primary. The feud appeared to start in a private meeting a year ago, but has since escalated. Earlier this summer, Flake published a book, titled “Conscience of a Conservative,” publicly criticizing the Republican Party for the rise of Trump. 

While the senator gained some admirers for being so outspoken against the president, he has also drawn criticism from certain elements in the GOP. Flake has at least one primary opponent, former state Sen. Kelli Ward, who lost a primary challenge to Sen. John McCain 51 percent to 40 percent last year. Trump praised her candidacy in a tweet last week, and one of his key donors contributed $300,000 to a PAC to defeat Flake.

Flake could also face a credible Democratic opponent in the general election, if he survives the primary. State Rep. Randy Friese, the doctor who assisted Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in the 2011 shooting in Tucson, Arizona, is seriously interested in running. But he could be joined in the race by Rep. Kyrsten Sinema or Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton.

Democrats will gladly point out that Flake, in spite of his reputation, has voted for much of Trump’s agenda (over 93.5 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight), including the recent health care proposal, for which McCain was the deciding “no” vote. That could make Flake vulnerable in the general election. If Flake is going to win re-election, he can’t afford too many defections from Republicans who are more loyal to Trump. And he doesn’t have a lot of room for error.

In 2012, Flake was elected to GOP Sen. Jon Kyl’s open seat with a 49 percent to 46 percent victory over Democratic former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona. In that race, Flake won both Republicans, 90-6 percent, and independents (albeit narrowly, 46-45 percent), according to the exit polls.

A recent Public Policy Polling survey showed Flake with a 22 percent job approval rating among 2016 Trump voters, while 63 percent of them disapproved. It was an automated poll by a Democratic firm, but those numbers should be alarming for the senator and his allies. 

At a minimum, Ward’s primary challenge will make it harder to unite the party. That’s important in Arizona considering the primary is late in the cycle — Aug. 28 — leaving little time to reunite the party between a likely bitter primary and the general election. Flake will likely need to dramatically improve among independents and/or Democrats in order to compensate for some lost or missing Republicans whose loyalties lie first with the president.

With Flake’s significant risk of losing voters on both sides of the ideological spectrum, we’re changing the Inside Elections rating of the Arizona Senate race from Leans Republican to Tilts Republican, a move in favor of the Democrats.

Considering Hillary Clinton won Nevada, Sen. Dean Heller is still the most vulnerable Republican incumbent in the country. But that doesn’t mean Flake isn’t too far behind. Both seats are important to Republicans’ ability to hold and expand their majority next year.

You can read more complete analysis for the Arizona Senate race in the Aug. 18 issue of Inside Elections.

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