President Donald Trump’s tweet yesterday morning endorsing a primary challenger to Arizona senator Jeff Flake was hardly a surprise. Trump likes to call himself a counter-puncher, so from his frame of reference, Flake had been asking for it by not only consistently criticizing the president but also spending the summer promoting a book attacking Trump and the Republicans who haven’t stood up to him. But this is a move Trump and his party may come to regret.
Trump wasn’t the only one annoyed by Flake’s Conscience of a Conservative and the accompanying tour. The senator’s attempt to cast himself as the successor to Barry Goldwater, whose 1960 book by the same name was a seminal moment in the rise of the modern conservative movement, was an act of colossal pretension. His interviews on shows such as Morning Joe amounted to nothing more than obnoxious virtue-signaling even from the point of view of Flake’s fellow Trump critics.
But whatever one may think of Flake, he is still a good bet to be reelected, and he’s likely to vote with his party and the president on key issues. On Obamacare repeal and replace, for example, he found himself on Trump’s side rather than that of his state’s senior senator, John McCain.
In a normal administration, an annoying senator like Flake would be tolerated as a necessary evil, especially since one of his main disagreements with Trump stems from his support for a more liberal immigration policy — something that makes him more, not less, electable in a state with a large Hispanic population. But the Trump administration is anything but normal, and its relations with its frenemies is governed by the president’s lack of impulse control, not dispassionate calculations of what is in his best political interests.
But there’s more at stake here than just Trump picking another fight with a critic.
Republicans have a natural advantage in the 2018 Senate races. The Democrats will be defending ten seats in states won by Trump, but only two Republican incumbents are considered to be in any danger: Dean Heller in Nevada, and Flake. While Arizona is more Republican than is purple Nevada, both senators are mindful of the need to stake out some ground in the political center.
During the height of the tea-party revolution, such behavior would have guaranteed a potent primary challenge — and that’s why Republicans lost so many winnable seats in 2010 and 2012. By 2014, the party establishment was working hard to ensure that people like Christine O’Donnell and Sharon Angle wouldn’t ensure Democratic wins in races that ought to have gone to the GOP, and the result gave them control of the Senate.
But Trump is interested in senators who are personally loyal to him no matter how egregious his conduct might be, not in winning elections. His embrace of Kelli Ward as Trump’s challenger seems to be a formula for repeating the O’Donnell-Angle paradigm.
Ironically, as Politico reported, Ward is perceived as the weakest of all possible GOP opponents to Flake. (Some in the administration have promoted other candidates with stronger résumés.) Ward embarrassed herself during her unsuccessful primary challenge to John McCain last year, and she recently doubled down on her reputation as a political incompetent by calling for the former POW to resign immediately following his recent cancer diagnosis. But Trump’s support could prove to be more useful to her than any political skill.
All things being equal, Flake ought to be able hold off a divided field of conservatives seeking to unseat him. But if Trump’s backing of Ward discourages others from running, there’s no way of knowing whether the president’s ability to mobilize his base might actually hand the primary to Ward. Like O’Donnell’s primary win in Delaware and Angle’s in Nevada eight years ago, that could create an opening for the Democrats.
Such a development would illustrate the dichotomy between Trump’s disastrous favorability ratings among all voters and his shrinking but still strong numbers among Republicans, which currently rest in the high 70s.
Trump may rue the day he couldn’t resist the temptation to purge Flake.
Congressional Republicans have been willing to voice more direct criticisms of Trump this week in the wake of his botched “both sides” response to neo-Nazi-Klan violence in Charlottesville, Va. But they are still acutely conscious of the fact that the president retains the backing of most Republicans, whose distrust of the mainstream media and disgust for liberals is enough to lead them to rationalize anything that comes out of Trump’s mouth. That’s why the senator and the rest of the GOP caucus can’t dismiss the notion of Trump exacting revenge on Flake for his impertinence.
Knocking off Flake would be intensely satisfying for Trump even if it did weaken Republicans’ chances of holding on to that seat. Given the way the incumbent math is weighted so heavily in favor of the GOP in 2018, he may not even think Flake’s seat is that important in terms of retaining a majority.
But if the Democrats win the House next year — which is far more likely than is their retaking the upper body or even creating a 50–50 split there — Trump may rue the day he couldn’t resist the temptation to purge Flake. A Democratic House will almost certainly vote to impeach Trump no matter what the Mueller investigation finds about collusion with Russia. Absent proof of wrongdoing that goes beyond Trump’s egregious behavior and statements, persuading two-thirds of the Senate to vote for conviction and removal from office will be difficult. But in order to ensure that the Democrats don’t get anywhere close to it, the White House needs both a GOP majority and for the entire Republican caucus, not just Trump loyalists, to stick with him. That ought to persuade Trump to live with Flake’s criticisms.
Trump’s revenge on Flake may be an object lesson not only in how not to lose a seat, but also in how to destroy an embattled president’s political safety net in the midst of what may turn out to be a desperate battle for survival.
— Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributor to National Review Online.