Emboldened Democrats increasingly view the Arizona Senate race as a pick-up opportunity, with incumbent Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeGOP lawmakers stick to Trump amid new criticism Kelly holds double-digit lead over McSally in Arizona: poll Trump asserts his power over Republicans MORE (R-Ariz.) attracting vigorous opposition from pro-Trump forces and speculation that rising Democratic star Rep. Kyrsten Sinema’s (D-Ariz.) will jump into the race.
A victory over Flake would be a huge boost to the Democratic Party, which has few other opportunities to topple an incumbent Republican senator in 2018. A Flake loss would also be devastating for the GOP’s agenda in the Senate, where a slim majority has already hampered Republican legislative plans.
“In recent days, we’ve continued to see the Jeff Flake political stock plummet,” said Chris Herstam, a former Republican whip in the state House who has since become a Democrat.
Republicans in Arizona are divided over Flake, who has emerged as one of President Trump’s most vocal GOP critics on Capitol Hill. Trump has a historically low approval rating for a first-term president, but has maintained a solid grip on his supporters, who are furious with Flake over his opposition to the administration.
This week, billionaire conservative donor Robert Mercer, who has close ties to the White House, poured $300,000 into a group supporting Flake’s primary challenger, state Sen. Kelli Ward (R-Az.). And two operatives from a major pro-Trump outside group have joined her campaign.
There is chatter that more pro-Trump candidates may enter into the race. The White House is keeping close tabs on the developments, and there is speculation that the president might at some point back a primary challenger to Flake.
The deep divisions on the right and the prospect for a drawn-out Republican primary have Democrats bullish that they can pick up a seat they haven’t held in almost 30 years.
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“I can see why the Democrats may be salivating,” said Lori Klein Corbin, the Republican National Committeewoman from Arizona.
“Flake is not popular here in Arizona with the Republican conservative base,” she said. “Although he has a fairly conservative voting record, he has managed to diss Trump supporters and also attack our president, which does not sit well with the voters who want to see Trump turn our country around from the socialist direction the Obama administration was taking us.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote GOP senator to try to reverse requirement that Pentagon remove Confederate names from bases No, ‘blue states’ do not bail out ‘red states’ MORE (R-Ky.) and the National Republican Senatorial Committee will throw their full weight behind Flake and any incumbent facing primary challenges in 2018. And Senate Leadership Fund, McConnell’s de facto super PAC, would come to Flake’s aid, too.
Republicans also have to worry about Sinema, who they acknowledge will be a formidable foe for whoever makes it out of the primary.
The Phoenix-area congresswoman has long teased a bid and confirmed her interest once again after local television station KPNX reported an imminent bid Friday.
“Kyrsten is a formidable opponent,” said one Arizona Republican. “She understands her way around the Hill, has moderated from being a liberal progressive and can raise money. Whoever is up against her in the general election will have to consider her a real opponent and not take her for granted.”
The Democrats face a daunting 2018 Senate map, which sees them tasked with defending 10 seats in states Trump won in 2016 with only two clear shots to topple a Republican incumbent. So while Democrats are boosted by Trump’s low approval rating and historic trends tend to benefit the party out of power, they have a slim margin for error in races across the country.
While Democrats already have a top recruit in Nevada, their best chance to pick up a seat, they are still waiting on a top-tier candidate in Arizona. That’s what makes Sinema’s bid so attractive to state Democrats who believe the moderate politician with a compelling backstory can be a top candidate.
“Kyrsten Sinema has occupied a centrist congressional district in heavily Republican Maricopa County now for three terms. She has positioned herself well on the issues as someone who has a centrist voting record, a loyal democrat but loves to reach across the party lines and work with Republicans,” Herstam said.
Sinema has never held statewide office, which will make it difficult for her to compete with Flake in redder parts of the state. And while Arizona is becoming more purple by the day, Trump still won the state by about 3.5 points in 2016, just two years after Republican Doug Ducey won the governor’s mansion by a wide margin.
But Democrats believe they can take Flake to task for his support of the GOP’s controversial attempts to repeal ObamaCare, especially since Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe Hill’s Campaign Report: Bad polling data is piling up for Trump Cindy McCain ‘disappointed’ McGrath used image of John McCain in ad attacking McConnell Report that Bush won’t support Trump reelection ‘completely made up,’ spokesman says MORE’s (R-Ariz.) public repudiation of the bill and its genesis gives Flake little cover.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who leads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told The Hill in a recent interview that Flake is in “real trouble” over healthcare.
Speaking about Flake and fellow vulnerable Republican Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerOn The Trail: Democrats plan to hammer Trump on Social Security, Medicare Lobbying World Democrats spend big to put Senate in play MORE (R-Nev.), Van Hollen argued the two are “squeezed by the overwhelming majority in those states who were strongly opposed to the healthcare proposal they voted for and then the ‘Trump-ers’ in those states who didn’t think they did enough.”
“You know the story in Arizona with Trump and Jeff Flake,” he added.
Meanwhile, Flake is preparing for a long slog to next August’s primary. The brutal primary stretch will give him little time to pivot for the September general election and the fight is expected to be nasty, with pro-Trump forces turning their attention to the race.
Republicans and many analysts on the ground believe the primary fight has been overblown.
“Flake is the favorite,” said Arizona pollster Mike O’Neil. “An incumbent getting beat in a primary is very rare.”
So far, Ward is the only primary challenger in the race. Few in Washington take her seriously, although Trump’s presence over the race has alarmed some, who fear she will upset Flake and promptly turn the seat over to Democrats. Ward fell well short to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2016 GOP primary, even though McCain had been seen as vulnerable.
“If Ward wins the primary she will have zero chance in the general election,” said one GOP strategist.
Flake will have the full weight of the Washington establishment backing him, and his voting record makes it difficult to run to his right in a primary.
“Flake votes as conservative as it gets,” said GOP strategist Doug Heye. “Attacking him from the right for not being conservative enough doesn’t hold a lot of water.”
Flake’s promotion tour for his new book, “Conscience of a Conservative,” which argues that Republicans must reclaim conservatism from Trump, continues to infuriate Trump’s base of supporters.
But Flake believes that the criticism won’t be his undoing. Asked by Time Magazine on Thursday if he could win reelection, he said yes.
“Arizona voters have always valued independence in their elected officials,” he said.” The last thing voters want is a rubber-stamp senator who agrees with the President or the party on everything.”
If the White House weighs in against Flake, analysts say it would be a game-changer. That could mean Trump backing Ward, or potential candidates like Arizona GOP chairman Robert Graham or state GOP treasurer Jeff Dewit. All were staunch pro-Trump allies during the campaign, with Graham or Dewit viewed as more serious challengers by many analysts.
Whoever emerges from the primary could have Sinema waiting on the other side.
“She looked just as closely at this in 2016 against McCain and rightly determined that it wasn’t viable,” said O’Neil. “She took the same look this time and seems to have sensed that it’s viable.”