WASHINGTON – Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, walked away from a 2018 re-election bid Tuesday, saying in a speech on the Senate floor that he “will not be complicit or silent” about the ongoing degradation of the political climate.
The surprise announcement follows months of sparring between the junior senator and President Donald Trump, who has called out Flake on numerous occasions and threatened to run a challenger against him. Flake has battled Trump since the election for what he calls a coarsening of public debate.
“We must never regard as normal the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals,” Flake said. “We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country – the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms, and institutions; the flagrant disregard for truth or decency, the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have all been elected to serve.”
But Flake also dropped out of a race that even he conceded would be difficult for him to win.
Flake said he would have sought re-election if he could have run the kind of race he wanted but that this is “an odd time in politics,” when he said the path to a GOP primary victory for traditional Republican like him is “very narrow.”
Political analysts agreed that Flake would have had a tough re-election fight, likely challenged from the left and the right, and said his announcement Tuesday sparks a “free-for-all” for the empty seat.
“In terms of an Arizona political Richter scale, this is an 8.0,” said Jason Rose, a political and public relations strategist based in Scottsdale. “The Senate is the most select club on planet Earth for Republicans, so there is likely to be a free-for-all.”
The announcement would appear to clear the Republican primary field for former state Sen. Kelli Ward, but Rose and others said Flake’s absence is likely to attract heavyweights who have been sitting on the sidelines, including State Treasurer Jeff DeWit and former Arizona State Republican Chairman Robert Graham.
The announcement would also appear to be good news for Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, the Democratic front-runner for the seat, but analysts said Flake’s absence could prove to be a challenge for her by drawing in a Republican candidate other than Ward.
Nathan Gonzales, the editor and publisher of Inside Elections, said that “if through all of this Kelli Ward is not the candidate, then it could improve the Republicans’ chances” of holding the Senate seat.
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Ward, who was endorsed by former White House senior adviser Steve Bannon, welcomed Flake’s announcement.
“Arizona voters are the big winner in Jeff Flake’s decision,” she said in a statement from her campaign. Arizonans deserve “a strong conservative … who supports President Trump and the ‘America First’ agenda.”
Gonzales said the president will likely claim Flake’s announcement as a victory, and Rose said that in the battle between the two, this was “practically a second round knockout.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called Flake’s action “probably the right decision,” in response to questions about Flake and another retiring lawmaker, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, who has made headlines by speaking out against Trump since announcing his retirement.
Flake’s announcement comes as fellow Arizona Sen. John McCain – another prominent Trump critic – battles aggressive brain cancer that McCain said has a poor prognosis. It presents the possibility of Arizona soon having two new senators.
Rose said that while some may welcome the turnover, it would mean “you don’t have senators with expertise, which can be bad when it comes to things like water policy, or defense or keeping military bases open,” which he said McCain was good at.
McCain took to the Senate floor to praise Flake, saying it was an honor to serve with him and lauding his commitment to serving Arizona, no matter the political cost.
“It’s been one of the great honors of my life to have the opportunity to serve with a man of integrity and honor and decency and commitment to not only Arizona, but the United States of America,” McCain said. “I have seen Jeff Flake stand up for what he believes in knowing full well that there would be a political price to pay.”
Flake said in his speech that the decision did not come without regrets.
“Regret because of the disrepair and destructiveness … the indecency of our discourse … the coarseness of our leadership … compromise of our moral authority … in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs,” he said.
But he said that “sustained incumbency is certainly not the point of seeking office and there are times we must risk our careers in favor of our principles – now is such a time.”
“Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as ‘telling it like it is,’ when it actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified,” he said.
By dropping his re-election bid, Flake said he should be better able to “represent the people of Arizona … by freeing myself of the political consideration that consumed far too much bandwidth.”
Meeting with reporters afterward, Flake said the “spell or fever that we’re in right now” must pass.
“Resentment is not a governing philosophy. At some point, you have to have policies that work, not just rile up a base,” he said. “I do think it will come around, otherwise it (the GOP) will be a minority party for a long time.”