First came the story that Trump was maybe possibly kinda sorta willing to spend $10 million of his own money to defeat Flake (spoiler: he won’t), now this. The White House really wants to teach Flake a lesson about loyalty, huh?
In related news, a sitting president is contemplating boosting a primary challenge to a senator from his own party. At a moment when his party barely holds a majority in the Senate.
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…
Since taking office, Trump has spoken with Arizona state Treasurer Jeff DeWit, a top official on his 2016 campaign, on at least two occasions, according to two sources familiar with the talks. More recently, since June, White House officials have also had discussions with former state Sen. Kelli Ward, who has announced her bid, and former Arizona GOP Chairman Robert Graham, who like DeWit is exploring a campaign…
[T]he complaints about Flake extend to other perceived apostasies [besides criticism of Trump], including his 2016 push to pass a bipartisan gun control bill, his openness to negotiate with former President Barack Obama over a nuclear pact with Iran, and his push to lift the U.S. embargo on travel to Cuba. While his supporters praise him as an independent-minded lawmaker who charts his own path, Flake’s detractors deride him as a grandstander — one all too willing to poke his party in the eye.
Trump has been hinting at wanting to see Flake defeated for over a year, including (allegedly) at least once to Flake’s face. If you missed it last summer, read this vivid WaPo account of nominee Trump’s meeting with Senate Republicans last July, when he called for party unity in the name of victory and got an earful from — ta da — Jeff Flake. When Trump remarked that Flake had been critical of him, Flake supposedly replied, “Yes, I’m the other senator from Arizona — the one who didn’t get captured — and I want to talk to you about statements like that.” Things deteriorated from there, with Trump threatening to attack Flake, Flake warning him to stop baiting Mexicans, and Trump “predicting” that Flake would lose his reelection bid. To which Flake smartly answered: I’m not in the ballot in 2016. You can imagine the snickering in the room at that retort and how much it chapped Trump’s ass. According to some people, his entire presidential bid was essentially a revenge operation against the political glitterati who looked down on him. Defeating Flake would be another revenge project.
Or maybe it’s just a way of putting pressure on Flake as he weighs his options on the Senate health-care bill. I think that’s how this is likely to turn out, with Flake voting yes and Trump being persuaded by McConnell and his own political team that ousting an incumbent Republican in a purple-state primary would be idiotic insofar as it vastly increases the chances of a Democratic pick-up next fall. If Flake votes no, though, Trump will be able to dismiss that logic: “If Flake’s not with me on the biggest vote he’ll have to take during my first term, what good is having a Republican in that seat anyway?” Flake’s in a real bind on which way to go on health care in a state like Arizona. A little well-timed White House saber-rattling might keep him in line.
Riddle me this, though. In talking to all of these primary challengers, does the White House have the basic good sense to settle on one of them and force everyone else out of the race? Kelli Ward, as noted above, is already in. If DeWit or Graham or both jump in as well, Flake is all but guaranteed victory as the anti-Flake vote splits two or three different ways in the primary. That wouldn’t be a problem if Arizona’s primary involved a runoff in case no one finishes with 50 percent — but, unless I’m mistaken, it doesn’t. Flake would advance to the general if he wins a 26/25/25/24 race over Ward, DeWit, or Graham. (To complicate matters further, former Gov. Jan Brewer and Rep. Martha McSally are also potentially in the mix.)
If Trump is serious about taking out Flake, the smart play would be to lean on Ward, who lost a primary last year to McCain, to withdraw by dangling a job at her and then to clear the field of all but one well-funded alternative. But even that carries a strong risk of backfire, as how Senate Republicans would react to the White House trying to take out one of their colleagues is unpredictable. Every member of the caucus has a strong incentive to stand with Flake against Trump’s interference, since a successful effort to knock him out will embolden Trump to target other troublemakers like Ben Sasse going forward. What if, for instance, McCain quietly made it known to Reince Priebus that he’s a no on health care unless Trump stops messing around with GOP incumbents? What if Mitch McConnell starts making threats? Like I said last week, I think the most you can expect from the White House vis-a-vis Flake is polite silence. And even that’s likely to change if the general election is tight and Flake needs a boost from Trump to mobilize populists in his favor in the final weeks of the race.