Heresy! Jeff Flake Attacks the President

Heresy! Jeff Flake Attacks the President

Arizona’s senators are having a moment. Shortly after John McCain made headlines by joining with Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski to cast a Republican health-care bill into the legislative charnel house, Jeff Flake, a first-term Republican from the suburbs east of Phoenix, has put out a new book lambasting President Donald Trump.

Flake’s book, Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle, was largely written in secret, its release something of a surprise in political circles. The title, an homage to Barry Goldwater’s 1960 manifesto, does not mention Trump directly, but Flake pulls no punches in the book’s text, citing the president as a progenitor of the country’s current political situation. Politico published an excerpt yesterday under the headline “My Party Is In Denial About Donald Trump.”

Flake acknowledges his own former complacency. Although he called for Trump to quit the presidential race after the Access Hollywood tape surfaced in October, Flake would later make a habit of saying he lacked the time to read the president’s tweets. Now, he admits his position was a cop-out. For the Republicans, Flake writes, Trump’s candidacy amounted to a “Faustian bargain”—one, he now believes, was “not worth it.”

“In this era of dysfunction and collapsed principle, our only accomplishment is painstakingly constructing the argument that we’re not to blame and hoping that we’ve gerrymandered ourselves well enough to be safe in the next election,” Flake wrote of his Republican colleagues. His main pitch is one of bipartisan cooperation and allegiance to congressional norms, coupled with his desire to return to old-school small government conservatism. That—and his folksy charm—has prompted a slew of admiring profiles and interviews in recent weeks.

The GOP has not reacted happily to Flake’s criticisms. Kelli Ward, a far-right former state senator challenging him in the Republican primary next year, called Flake a “globalist,” tweeting that America is “strong [and] unapologetic” under Trump. (“Globalist” is a term frequently used by alt-right commentators to imply that their targets are Jewish or influenced by Jews. Flake is Mormon.) Trump has pledged $10 million of his own money to beat Flake in the Republican primary, an unprecedented move by a president against an incumbent of his own party. The conservative Washington Times published an op-ed calling Flake an “elitist” and a “defector […] to the Democratic side” before blasting him for his pro-amnesty position on illegal immigration.

Although considered the second-most vulnerable Republican up for re-election in 2018 after Nevada’s Dean Heller, Flake has not yet drawn a serious Democratic challenger. Thus far, the only Democrats who have announced campaigns are two little-known attorneys and a retired judge who once served in Iowa’s state legislature. Several prominent Democrats—including astronaut Mark Kelly, the husband of former Representative Gabrielle Giffords; Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton; and Representative Krysten Sinema—have not fully ruled out campaigns. Flake’s approval rating in his home state lags his disapproval rating by 8 percentage points, and in 2012 he defeated Democrat Richard Carmona by just 3 points.

For the Democrats to regain the Senate in 2018—a tall order, given that they are defending 23 seats while Republicans defend just eight—the most likely path goes through Arizona. Flake may well be vulnerable to Democratic attacks by virtue of his support for repealing Obamacare. But it seems unlikely that a Democratic candidate could simply run an anti-Trump campaign against Flake—after all, his 160-page tirade against the president is as strongly worded as most Democratic senators’ anti-Trump jeremiads.