In opening campaign salvo, Flake book says GOP has ‘lost its way’

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, said the Republican Party has lost its way, turning to nativism and protectionism instead of the Goldwater values of limited government and individual responsibility. Those are themes of his new book, the opening salvo in what is expected to be a tough 2018 re-election campaign for Flake. (Photo courtesy CBS/Face the Nation)

WASHINGTON – Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake is calling for a return to “traditional conservatism” in a book that says the Republican Party has lost its way, the opening salvo in what could be a tough re-election campaign.

The first-term Senate Republican made the comments Sunday during an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” where he talked about his new book “Conscience of a Conservative.”

The title alludes to the 1960 book of the same name by former Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Arizona, a conservative icon and one of Flake’s political role models. Flake said he and Goldwater both wrote their books in response to a feeling that their party had “lost its way.”

“We’ve given in to nativism and protectionism,” Flake said on the Sunday talk show. “And I think that if we’re going to be a governing party in the future, and a majority party, we’ve got to go back to traditional conservatism.”

Besides calling for a return to Goldwater principles, Flake’s book calls out the mean-spiritedness of politics, saying many of today’s problems will require bipartisan solutions, especially in the Senate.

“We’ve just seen the limits of what one party can do – even if you change the rules of the Senate, which we should not do,” he said.

Flake made a point to reference civility in his book.

“We cannot claim to place the highest premium on character, then abruptly suspend the importance of character in the most vital civic decision that we make,” Flake wrote. “When we excuse on our side what we attack on the other, then we are hypocrites.”

In a thinly veiled reference to President Donald Trump’s sometimes-provocative tweets, Flake told CBS host John Dickerson the “last thing you want to do” is wake up to hostile messages from political opponents.

“It’s tough not to just say, ‘I’m not going to respond,'” he said. “But you can’t respond to everything. But there are times when you have to stand up and say, ‘I’m sorry, this is wrong.'”

Flake said the divisive and sometimes profane rhetoric of the modern political climate unfairly overshadows the debate over issues of substance.

“We’ve seen, unfortunately, too many examples of members of Congress and other elected officials using language, referring to your opponents in ways that you would have never done before, ascribing the worst motives to your opponents and assuming that other Americans are the enemies,” he said.

The book unofficially kicks off what is expected to be a challenging 2018 re-election campaign for Flake.

A recent poll by Morning Consult pegged Flake as the third-least-popular senator, with approval ratings of 37 percent compared to disapproval ratings of 45 percent. His unfavorable ranking trailed only Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and fellow Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, both of whom had higher approval numbers than Flake.

Flake is regularly cited as one of the most vulnerable senators whose seat is up next year and is likely to face stiff challenges from the left and the right.

From the left, protesters pressuring him over the health care debate have practically made a second home of Flake’s offices in Phoenix and Washington, with protests in D.C. resulting in arrests twice this month.

Immigration lawyer Deedra Abboud, a Democrat, has already announced her campaign for Flake’s seat and published reports have mentioned Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton and Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, may be considering bids.

From the right, Flake’s challenges could go all the way up to the White House.

Flake refused to endorse then-candidate Donald Trump’s presidential bid, calling for Trump to drop out of the race after audio tapes surfaced in which Trump bragged about groping unwilling women. Trump and Flake reportedly sparred in a closed-door meeting between GOP senators and their presidential nominee, and published reports say Trump has offered to personally bankroll a challenger to Flake.

Republican Kelli Ward, who ran an unsuccessful campaign to unseat Sen. John McCain from the right last year, almost immediately announced a primary challenge to Flake. She vows to support Trump and her campaign accuses Flake of “supporting the Clinton crime family by being a vocal member of Never Trump” in the last election and announcing that he would vote for a write-in candidate.

Other possible GOP challengers that have been mentioned include former state party chairman Robert Graham and state Treasurer Jeff DeWit, who served as chief operating officer for Trump’s national campaign.

Conservatives heavily criticized Flake, along with McCain, for his role in crafting the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013 before dying in the House. He also parts ways with some parts of the party on issues like normalizing relations with Cuba.

The criticisms come despite Flake’s conservative bona fides. He has a lifetime voting record score of 93.07 from the American Conservative Union, putting him right behind Attorney General Jeff Sessions who had a score of 93.65 for his time as a senator from Alabama. His U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranking of 73 for the last Congress put him just behind Sessions and just ahead of Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.

And Flake is hardly standing pat. In addition to the book, he has started to aggressively raise funds for a 2018 bid. His latest filing with the Federal Election Commission shows he had raised $4.3 million by June 30, almost $1.5 million in the last quarter alone, and still had $3 million in the bank.

One analyst said the challenge for Flake is to walk the tightrope between the Tea Party and Trump wing of the party in the primary and then “nimbly pivot from trying to dispatch any Republican primary candidate to an appeal in the general election.”

“Which is distance from Trump, independence on certain issues, immigration reform, opening of Cuba,” said Jason Rose, a Scottsdale-based political analyst. “I think he’s got a very compelling general election narrative and he just needs to shore up his Republican primary narrative.”

– Cronkite News reporter Brianna Stearns contributed to this report.