President Donald Trump hates Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake with a deep, burning passion. He hates him for the precise reason that he hates anyone: Because Flake has said, and continues to say, critical things about him. Though Flake has voted with the president 93.5 percent of the time, including on the final, failed health care repeal attempt a few weeks ago, he did not support Trump’s candidacy for president, and he has just released a book equating Trump’s rise with the “spasms of a dying party.” So it has never been a question of whether Trump and those in his political orbit would back a challenger to Flake, just a matter of whom they would back.
On Thursday morning, Trump finally chimed in on “Flake Jeff Flake,” and offered kind words for Flake’s only semi-competitive primary rival to date: former Arizona state senator Kelli Ward, a far-right figure with a flair for provocative statements against her opponents.
That stops short of an endorsement, but Arizona Republicans have been speculating that Trump could formally endorse Ward at his rally in Phoenix next week.
I’ve been feeling some déjà vu over this. Last year, I went to Arizona to cover John McCain’s reelection campaign and devoted much of my story to profiling Ward in her primary challenge against him. Like McCain, Flake is a mainstream conservative who supports comprehensive immigration reform, which makes him vulnerable with the state’s far-right faction. Ward’s super PAC last week received a $300,000 check from Robert Mercer, a staunch Trump supporter and the go-to billionaire sugar daddy for the Bannonite wing of the party. Mercer had also contributed $700,000 to her failed primary against McCain.
In last year’s primary, the far-right opponents of McCain tried to enlist a more credible challenger than Ward, like Reps. Matt Salmon or Dave Schweikert. Neither took the plunge, though, and Ward became their best option by default. The same process is unfolding in this primary. Flake’s opponents, such as the President of the United States, have been trying to enlist a more credible challenger than Ward, most notably state treasurer Jeff DeWit, who served as the Trump campaign’s chief operating officer last year. Politico reported on Thursday that some Trump aides were “taken aback by the tweet” this morning, as they’re still working on recruiting DeWit or someone else. But if they haven’t been able to get an alternate yet—and potential challengers like DeWit must recognize that if they entered, they’d likely split the conservative opposition with Ward—maybe the time to settle is now.
When I was in Arizona last June, most of the Republican operatives I spoke to gave Ward no chance to beat McCain. They were right. McCain topped her in the primary, 52 to 39 percent. Two months after she lost that primary, Ward announced that she would challenge Flake in 2018. The sudden pivot to a 2018 campaign before Election Day 2016 suggested to me that we might have a professional fringe campaigner on our hands who was no longer worth taking seriously.
Now I’m not so sure. Trump hates McCain, too, but he did reluctantly back him before last year’s primary, just as McCain reluctantly backed Trump in the general election. Flake never backed Trump, and Trump wants Flake removed from office. The operatives I spoke to Thursday, while still doubtful about Ward’s chances against Flake, were not certain that her fate was sealed.
“Jeff Flake is not John McCain,” said Matt Benson, who served as communications director and spokesperson for former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. “He has some vulnerabilities that John McCain didn’t, namely that he is in his first term and the public polling will show you that he has some weaknesses there with the Republican base.” He noted, though, that Flake is still a prolific fundraiser, with millions in the bank, and strong support among the state’s business community. “He will be a difficult out, I will put it that way,” Benson said.
Meghan Cox, an Arizona-based political consultant and fan of Flake, couldn’t say for sure whether Ward was doomed. “It’s a year out, and so much can happen in a year—so much can happen in a week!—so everything and anything can happen between now and then.” And she noted that Ward’s name identification “definitely has picked up, because it’s her second go-around.” (And, today, because of Trump’s tweet.)
I promised myself not to take Ward seriously this time around. But if Trump endorses her next week, I may have to—and Jeff Flake will, too.