We’re actually going to see the White House push a primary challenger to an incumbent from the president’s own party, huh? In a purple state, too. With the Senate already nearly evenly divided!
I’ll say this much for Trump: Given the very high risk that this move will turn into a massive political disaster, it takes some balls to even attempt it. The man’s not afraid to bet big in the name of revenge for his wounded pride.
Before taking the stage in Phoenix on Tuesday evening for a campaign-style rally, the president huddled backstage with state Treasurer Jeff DeWit and former state GOP Chairman Robert Graham. Both are considering running against Flake, an outspoken critic of the president who recently published an anti-Trump book, “Conscience of a Conservative.”
Trump ripped the Arizona senator during the brief meeting, calling him “the flake,” according to three people who provided an account of the discussion. Trump also discussed the potential for a primary challenge to Flake and told DeWit and Graham, both of whom have aligned themselves with the president, to get back to him about their interest in running.
DeWit and Graham are both seen as more serious challengers to Flake than Kelli Ward, who lost decisively to McCain last year in a primary and who’s already being attacked as a kook by the Senate Leadership Fund. Trump gave her a shout-out on Twitter recently, which was … odd given the White House’s recruitment of DeWit and Graham, but it sounds like he’s straightened out now and is focused on giving Flake the toughest race he possibly can. Per Politico, DeWit even hitched a ride to the Phoenix rally on Air Force One.
There’s one and only one scenario in which this works out (sort of) well for Trump: His handpicked primary challenger knocks off Flake, then defeats Dem Rep. Kyrsten Sinema in the general election to hold the seat. That’s quite possible, of course. Arizona’s still a reddish state and Trump won it by three points last year. If he succeeds in installing DeWit or Graham in the Senate, it’ll serve notice to McConnell and the rest of the caucus that they’d better not cross him like Flake did if they want to keep their jobs. He’ll have proved he’s willing and able to personally see to it that they won’t.
Then there are the disaster scenarios. Scenario one: Trump’s candidate defeats Flake in the primary but loses to Sinema in the general as Flake fans stay home in protest. That’s not a total disaster for Trump if the GOP manages to pick up Senate seats overall in the midterms, although of course he’ll be blamed for squandering what would have been a holdable seat by the incumbent Flake. If the GOP loses Senate seats overall, though, and this race ends up producing a Democratic majority? Total disaster. He’ll never hear the end of it.
Scenario two: Trump’s candidate loses to Flake in the primary. The main risk Trump is taking in backing a challenger is that he’s betting his influence over the Republican electorate is greater than Flake’s and Mitch McConnell’s. He’s arm-wrestling with the establishment to prove that he’s stronger. If he wins that arm-wrestling match, great. Whatever happens in the general, he’ll have taught “the swamp” a painful lesson that Republican voters are loyal to him above all. If he loses that match, oh boy. To wager his credibility on Flake’s primary opponent and then see Republicans side with the incumbent, particularly an incumbent who’s been so harshly, publicly critical of the president, would be a brutal blow to Trump’s prestige. He might be left so weak that congressional Republicans more or less stop paying attention to him until 2020.
Scenario three: Trump’s candidate loses to Flake in the primary specifically because Trump can’t muscle Kelli Ward out of the race and the anti-Flake vote ends up split between her and Trump’s candidate. This is why, as I said, it was so odd to see Trump promoting Ward on Twitter. If he’s eyeing a more establishment challenger to Flake, it’s nuts to also boost a populist challenger who will pull votes away from the establishmentarian. Even stranger:
— Dr. Kelli Ward (@kelliwardaz) August 23, 2017
It’s true. Trump’s most devoted fan in media, Sean Hannity, endorsed Ward on his radio show today, less than 24 hours after Trump met with DeWit and Graham before the Phoenix rally. Why he would do that when DeWit and Graham need Ward out of the race, I don’t know. Presumably there’s some position in government that Trump could dangle at Ward to entice her into dropping out. If not, and if the boosts from Hannity and from Trump himself end up building some grassroots excitement for her, the president may have to make a hard decision about trying to keep DeWit and Graham out in order to clear the field for Ward, knowing that he can’t afford a divided field against Flake. Imagine if Trump ends up stuck with Ward as Flake’s challenger because he foolishly touted her early on and Flake goes on to beat her only very narrowly. He’ll be second-guessed about not pushing DeWit or Graham instead until the end of time.
One other possibility: If DeWit or Graham does get in and Flake is waaaay behind in the early polling, I wonder if McConnell and other party leaders won’t swallow hard and reluctantly nudge him not to run for reelection after all. The weaker he looks, the more it’s in the party’s interest to unite early behind a new nominee. Flake spending big money to tear down DeWit, only to lose and then see DeWit lose to Sinema, would be a terrible outcome for the GOP. But maybe McConnell’s resolved to risk it. His credibility’s on the line here too. He can’t surrender in a proxy war with Trump, especially when his guy has the advantage of incumbency. He needs Flake to accept this challenge.
Whatever happens — in any of the above scenarios, including the victory one — the mere fact that Trump is coming after Flake will poison his relationship with Senate Republicans. This is why I say nearly every potential outcome is a disaster for him. He’s going to burn whatever goodwill remains for him within McConnell’s caucus by doing this. If he doesn’t compensate for that by making them fear him with a big win in Arizona, he’ll have no credibility left. Exit question: Why doesn’t Flake just retire from the Senate already and announce that he’s primarying Trump in 2020? C’mon. You know he wants to!