Behind Flake’s decision to bow out of Senate, a disillusioning, disheartening year

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent

On Tuesday afternoon, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, the most consistent Republican critic of President Trump, stunned the political world by taking the floor of the U.S. Senate to declare that he will not run for reelection in 2018 — in part as a protest against what he called the president’s “reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior,” and in part because his feud with Trump left him facing a “narrower and narrower path to the nomination.”

Trump “is dangerous to a democracy,” Flake said. “When the next generation asks us, ‘Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you speak up?’ — what are we going to say? Mr. President, I rise today to say: Enough.”

The decision was shocking — an act of intraparty mutiny without recent precedent in our painfully polarized political environment.

But it was also a long time coming.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., after a vote in the Capitol in July (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

For more than a year, Flake has repeatedly spoken out against Trump, refusing to vote for him in last November’s election and then, after Trump took office, admonishing his party’s new president on topics ranging from trade policy to the tone of his tweets.

Flake even spent several months secretly writing (and several more very publicly promoting) a book, “Conscience of a Conservative,” which compares Trump’s campaign to a “late-night infomercial” that was “free of significant thought,” then goes on to explain in pained, I-wish-I-didn’t-have-to-do-this detail why almost none of what Trump stands for — banning Muslims, building a border wall — actually qualifies, in Flake’s view, as conservative.

Trump, for his part, took to calling Flake “toxic,” threatening to spend $10 million to bury him in a primary.

But while the Beltway media tends to frame Flake’s feud with Trump as a personality clash, the truth goes deeper.

What were the forces and factors paved the way for Flake’s real-life “Bulworth” moment? I recently went to Arizona to find out.

***

In August, President Trump flew to Phoenix to rally thousands of his supporters.

The state’s junior senator was not among them.

Early that morning, Flake, 54, left his home in Mesa, a Phoenix suburb, and traveled 120 miles south, to Tucson.

Technically, Flake’s road trip didn’t have anything to do with Trump. But the symbolism was striking. At first, Flake’s press secretary told me the senator would not be participating in any public events while the president was in Arizona. The night before Trump arrived, however, she forwarded an invitation to a small ceremony at the Pima County sheriff’s department. I wound up being the only national reporter in attendance.

At the event, police officers presented Flake with two awards commending him for the courage he displayed on June 14, when James Hodgkinson, an apparently deranged left-wing radical activist, opened fire on a team of Republicans practicing for the annual congressional baseball game.

Sen. Jeff Flake on June 14 after the Congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Va., where House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., was shot. (Photo: Kevin S. Vineys/AP)

“Without regard for his safety, Sen. Flake went to the assistance of wounded colleagues, potentially exposing himself to further danger during a dynamic and still unfolding situation,” said Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier. “His selfless actions and decisiveness likely saved lives.”

An emotional Flake insisted he wasn’t “deserving” of an award “at all, frankly.” But he did want to say a few words.

“I just remember thinking as the shots first rang out, seeing the bullets pitch off the gravel near the dugout: ‘Why? Why here? Why us? Who could look at a field of middle-aged members of Congress playing baseball and see the enemy?’” Flake told the assembled cops. “We have to stop ascribing the worst motives to our political opponents. It’s the language we use, the rhetoric we use. Obviously, I’m a fierce partisan at times, when you argue on policy. But it ought to end there. Fellow Americans aren’t our enemies.”

If Flake’s cri de coeur was meant as a message to Trump, it didn’t get through. Before his big speech that night at the Phoenix Convention Center, the president was seen huddling with Arizona state Treasurer Jeff DeWit and former state GOP Chairman Robert Graham, both of whom are considering Senate runs in 2018.

Later, on stage, Trump couldn’t resist lashing out — first at Flake’s Arizona Senate colleague, John McCain, who is battling brain cancer, and then at Flake himself (without mentioning him by name).

“Nobody wants me to talk about your other senator, who’s weak on borders, weak on crime, so I won’t talk about him,” Trump said. “Nobody knows who the hell he is.”

President Trump addresses a “Make America Great Again” rally in Phoenix on August 22. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

***

It’s true (as I’ve noted before) that Flake and Trump are by background and temperament very much opposites. Trump is an Easterner, born and bred in Queens, N.Y., the son of a wealthy real estate developer; Flake is a fifth-generation Arizonan who grew up on a cattle ranch in a small town founded by his ancestors (Snowflake, Ariz., pop. 5,576). Trump can’t ever recall asking God for forgiveness; Flake, an alumnus of Brigham Young University and a former missionary to South Africa, is as Mormon as they come. Trump is reflexively coarse and bombastic; Flake, with his formal posture, G-rated vocabulary and stern but kindly tone, can seem less like a 21st- century Washington pol than a moralizing television dad from 1956.

Yet there’s more at stake here than style.

Over the last six decades, the story of the Republican Party has been the story of movement conservatism. Free-market economists such as Friedrich Hayek inspired William F. Buckley to start the National Review; the National Review fueled the rise of Flake’s hero and predecessor, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, who ripped the 1964 GOP presidential nomination away from the Eastern establishment (and wrote the original “Conscience of a Conservative”); Goldwater paved the way for Ronald Reagan, who was twice elected governor of California and president of the United States; Reagan begat generations of conservative Republicans who rallied around his gospel of limited government, muscular internationalism and Christian moralism, transforming the GOP in the process.

Among today’s Republicans, Flake is perhaps the purest distillation of this tradition: a former executive director of Arizona’s free-market, small-government Goldwater Institute who has spent five terms in the House and one term in the Senate fighting for earmark bans, spending cuts, entitlement reform, free-trade deals and the spread of democracy abroad (particularly in Cuba). His lifetime American Conservative Union rating is 93 percent.

Trump, in contrast, won the 2016 election by rejecting each of the three main tenets of movement conservatism. He trashed free-trade agreements and promised to preserve entitlements. He bad-mouthed NATO and vowed to disengage abroad. And he bragged about grabbing married women by the genitals.

“Of all the illusions Trump has dispelled … none is more significant than the illusion of the conservative movement,” Samuel Goldman, a political science professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., wrote last year. “In state after state, voters indicated that they did not care much about conservative orthodoxy on the economy, foreign policy or what used to be called family values.”

U.S. Republican Congressmen, Jeff Flake (left) and Mike Conaway (center) walk through Old Havana on a visit to Cuba by 10 members of Congress in 2006. (Photo: Reuters)

Flake’s 2018 reelection campaign was set to be the first real test of whether Trumpism could spread beyond Trump and take over the GOP. Flake, who was widely considered one of the two most vulnerable Republican senators in the country, had made it clearer than any other GOP incumbent that he opposed this path. As a result, the senator had already attracted one pro-Trump primary challenger in former state Sen. Kelli Ward, and early polls (all of them from small right-wing firms) showed Ward ahead by double-digit margins.

In Tuesday’s speech on the Senate floor, Flake predicted that the “spell” of Trumpism “will eventually break” and that his brand of movement conservatism will someday triumph.

“For the moment, [Republicans] have given in or given up on those core principles in favor of the more viscerally satisfying anger and resentment,” Flake lamented. But “we will return to ourselves once more, and I say the sooner the better.”

But that outcome is far from certain — and Flake’s dramatic decision to step aside is a sign that so far, Trump has the upper hand.

If the president turns out to be a party of one — a celebrity-in-chief with no ideological coattails — then Flake and his fellow movement conservatives could recover. But if Goldman is right — if Trump has shown that rank-and-file Republicans care more about putting “America First” than, say, reforming Medicare — movement conservatism itself could be a thing of the past.

After the awards ceremony in Tucson, I caught up with Flake in a hallway. He was rushing to his next appointment, but I was able to ask a couple of questions before he disappeared behind a closed door.

Given Trump’s success and support within the GOP, do you worry that the moment for movement conservatism is over? I wondered. Have Republican voters moved on?

Flake grimaced. “That’s my concern,” he said. “My fear is that this kind of populist, nationalist, antitrade movement is not a governing philosophy.” Another grimace. “I’m worried that it could take over.”

***

Spend a few days in Arizona with the GOP base, and you can see why Flake was right to worry.

By the time Arizona Republicans select their Senate nominee next August, Kelli Ward may no longer have the field all to herself. The White House has tried to persuade a more prominent Republican, such as Graham or DeWit, to enter the race, and even former sheriff of Maricopa County Joe Arpaio, the anti-immigrant hardliner who recently received Trump’s first presidential pardon, is claiming that he’s considering a bid.

“I’m sure getting a lot of people around the state asking me,” Arpaio told the Washington Examiner earlier this year. “All I’m saying is the door is open, and we’ll see what happens. I’ve got support. I know what support I have.”

Right-wing Flake challenger Kelli Ward poses with a supporter outside President Trump’s rally in Phoenix on Aug. 22. (Photo: Andrew Romano/Yahoo News)

But for now, Ward, a 48-year-old osteopathic doctor, is the only game in town.

As Flake was leaving the Phoenix area for Tucson, Ward, who lives in Lake Havasu City, made a beeline for the site of Trump’s rally. A dozen volunteers assembled in the lobby of the nearby Renaissance hotel, where an organizer passed out a bunch of T-shirts in Ward’s signature bright yellow. The logo on the front was an Arizona license plate with the words “TRUMP 2016” on one side and “WARD 2018” on the other; the back of the shirt said “#MAKEARIZONAGREATAGAIN.”

“They’re brand-new,” one volunteer boasted.

Outside, a line of eager Trump fans had already encircled an entire city block, even though the rally was still five hours away and the temperature was 106 degrees. Ward’s street team set up a folding table at the corner of Second and Washington and went to work. Goal No. 1: gathering the 12,000 or so signatures needed to get Ward on the primary ballot. Goal No. 2: convincing as many Trump voters as possible to wear yellow “Ward 2018” stickers.

“Any Kelli Ward supporters here?” shouted volunteer Susan McAlpine, a 64-year-old retired teacher with dangly earrings and a thick Boston accent. No response.

“Any Jeff Flake fans here?” she added.

“F*** Jeff Flake,” one man immediately snapped.

“Flake the Flake!” another chimed in.

“Might as well be a Democrat,” a third muttered.

McAlpine pulled me aside. “As soon as they hear the name Flake, they’re all like ‘WHAT?!?!’” she said.

By the time Ward herself materialized on the corner and began to shake hands and smile for selfies in (what else?) a bright yellow blazer, McAlpine & Co. had canvassed the entire block. More than half the attendees now seemed to be sporting WARD 2018 decals. Nearby, consultant Brent Lowder smiled approvingly.

Lowder’s presence in Phoenix is one of several early signs of how much has changed since Ward’s last campaign. In 2016, she attempted to unseat McCain and wound up losing the GOP primary by more than 11 percentage points. Ward made several rookie mistakes that year, plagiarizing a Mitt Romney ad, mocking McCain as “old” and “weak” and failing to fully dispel the opposition’s “Chemtrail Kelli” caricature (which gained traction after Ward hosted a town hall meeting in 2015 to discuss the conspiracy theory — a theory she says she doesn’t believe — that the trails of white condensation emanating from airplane engines are actually dangerous chemicals being dispersed by the government).

But the biggest difference between then and now is that back then, Trump seemed likely to lose the election. Now he’s the leader of the free world.

The rise of Trumpism has, in turn, boosted Ward. On Aug. 9, the reclusive hedge fund billionaire and top Trump donor Robert Mercer sent $300,000 to Ward’s super-PAC. Two days later, Lowder and his partner, Eric Beach, signed on to run Ward’s campaign. They previously led the largest pro-Trump super-PAC in the country, raising $30 million during the 2016 election cycle. And on Aug. 17, Trump himself tweeted about Ward, stopping just short of formally endorsing her.

“Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake Jeff Flake, who is WEAK on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate,” the president wrote. “He’s toxic!”

The morning after Trump’s rally in Phoenix, Ward still sounded delighted — and surprised — by the national attention.

“Our momentum has been YUGE!” Ward told a crowd of 100 local Republicans sipping coffee and nibbling cookies in the Navajo Room of Arizona’s Sun Lakes Country Club. “It’s been ‘big league!’ The media coverage alone — there were 3,000 hits about that tweet!”

Pacing back and forth between two life-size cardboard cutouts of Trump, Ward rattled off all the things she agreed with the president about: building the border wall, halting Muslim immigration, repealing Obamacare, ending sanctuary cities.

“Our race is going to be ground zero for the heart and soul of the Republican Party,” Ward said. “Do we want to be what we’ve had for decade after decade — the same thing that has gotten us into this position where we can’t get anything done? Or do we want to be the party of freedom and hope and opportunity? That’s what Donald Trump has offered us as president — and that’s what we have to continue in 2018. This is the new GOP.”

Suddenly, Ward’s phone rang. She raised her hand and shushed the crowd; the room went silent. It was Sean Hannity’s producer. Unable to resist a last-minute interview request — and the publicity it promised — Ward decided to take the call in the middle of her appearance.

For a few minutes, Ward just listened. Then she smiled. “Thank you!” she said. Ward covered the phone and turned to the crowd. “Sean Hannity just endorsed me!” she whispered. “Yay!”

After the event, I talked to Joyce Sample, a retiree from the Phoenix suburb of Chandler, about why she wasn’t supporting Flake.

Kelli Ward receives Sean Hannity’s endorsement in the middle of a campaign stop at the Sun Lakes Country Club in Sun Lakes, Ariz. (Photo: Andrew Romano/Yahoo News)

“Trump is now his president,” Sample said. “As a Republican, it’s Flake’s duty to go along with him. He is not doing it. That’s why I don’t like Flake. He’s not being supportive.”

As the room emptied out and Ward posed for a final photo with a cardboard Trump, I asked her to explain how “the new GOP” differs from the old GOP.

“Jeff Flake is a globalist,” she said. “He’s not about making sure the United States has as good a deal as everybody else. But the new GOP is about Americanism. That’s what Donald Trump is pushing the Republican Party toward — and that’s what’s at stake in this primary.”

But Flake would say Americanism is not conservatism at all, I suggested. In fact, that’s what his entire book is about.

“You mean his hit piece on the president?” Ward snapped. “It’s all very condescending. He’s basically tapping all of us on the head who are conservative and saying, ‘You don’t really know what conservatism is.’

“Things do change over time,” she continued. “Things work or they don’t work. You can’t be stagnant. You have to look at the direction you want to go and see if the path you’re taking is getting you there. And if it isn’t, you have to take a turn.”

***

A few days earlier, before the Trump tornado touched down in Arizona, Flake attended a breakfast hosted by the East Valley Chambers of Commerce, 20 miles southeast of Phoenix. The theme: “Good Government.”

The senator was in his element. Men in suits and women in heels tapped at their smartphones. A large screen hovering overhead listed nine corporate and institutional sponsors. Attendees held crisp copies of “Conscience of a Conservative,” which Flake happily signed as he made his way to the stage.

“Arizona tends to elect senators who stand on principle and are independent in their thinking,” said the executive tasked with introducing Flake. “Certainly, Sen. Flake is that.”

Sen. Jeff Flake signs a copy of his book, “Conscience of a Conservative,” at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast in Gilbert, Ariz. (Photo: Andrew Romano/Yahoo News)

In his remarks, and as he responded to questions, Flake sounded like the senator I profiled in 2015. He extolled the virtues of the NAFTA trade pact, arguing that it “has been good for Arizona.” He described Trump’s “rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership” as “a big mistake that will haunt us for a long time.” He called for a grand, bipartisan bargain on the deficit, saying that the only way to produce a “sustainable” budget is to “work across the aisle.” He insisted that “when people talk about one solution on the border, they haven’t traveled the border” — and proudly reminded the audience that he was one of the main architects of the Gang of Eight’s comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013. On North Korea, he warned that “Our allies need to know we are steady and predictable — in my mind, that’s what a conservative is.” As for foreign policy in general, “we need to lead, as we have in the past.

“This vitriol we have, it’s preventing us from achieving conservative ends,” Flake concluded. “We’ve got to get away from calling our opponents ‘losers’ or ‘clowns.’ It just makes it difficult to work with them on big issues.”

Listening to Flake, it was hard to believe that recent polls have shown him with an approval rating as low as 18 percent. Perhaps that’s what happens when you refuse, in a polarized era, to pander to your party’s base — and actively antagonize the president they adore.

Flake meets the press after his Chamber of Commerce event in Gilbert, Ariz. (Photo: andrew Romano /Yahoo News)

You become a man without a country.

As we got to the end of that hall in the Pima County sheriff’s office, I asked Flake one last question: Has your reelection contest become a referendum on conservatism itself?

Flake chuckled nervously. “Whether it is or not, I am who I am,” he said. “This is what I think traditional conservatism is. And I do think people will rally around it — given the alternative.”

Flake can be very convincing. But this time, it didn’t sound as if he was trying to convince me. It sounded as if he was trying to convince himself.

On Tuesday, he finally revealed that he had failed.

This is an updated version of an article that first appeared in August.

_____

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