Magazine | September 11, 2017, Issue

Conservatism In the Desert

Senator Jeff Flake makes a Goldwateresque stand against Trump

Snowflake, Ariz. — If you drive 200 miles northeast of Phoenix, deep into Navajo County, Ariz., you will find yourself in the Town of Snowflake. Nestled in a corridor of the state between the Hopi and Fort Apache reservations, this is Arizona’s high country — the woodsy White Mountains, a region that bears little resemblance to the low country of the Sonoran Desert.

The town of around 5,000 is not exactly a cultural hot spot. Snowflake’s claims to fame include being an early hotbed of Mormon polygamy (a lifestyle choice that landed one of the town’s founding fathers in jail) and, later, the location of the purported alien abduction that inspired the sci-fi movie Fire in the Sky.

But now, perhaps the most notable thing about Snowflake is that it is where the new leader of a conservative resistance to Trumpism, Arizona’s junior U.S. senator, Jeff Flake, was born. The similarity between his surname and “Snowflake” is no coincidence — it was Flake’s great-grandfather who was imprisoned for polygamy after founding the town. Flake’s western bona fides include being a fifth-generation Arizonan. His father was mayor of Snowflake, and his uncle a beloved speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives. Before he won a bid for the U.S. House in 2000, Jeff Flake served as executive director of the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank with an emphasis on individual rights. (I worked at the Goldwater Institute between 2009 and 2014.)

To say that Jeff Flake is a native son of this state would be an understatement. Following in the tradition of Barry Goldwater, Flake is not the first Republican senator from Arizona to contravene GOP marching orders — it was just last month that John McCain doomed attempts to repeal Obamacare, the culmination of a career that has included crossing the aisle to join the late Ted Kennedy in pushing comprehensive immigration reform, not to mention the less well-loved but seldom forgotten campaign-finance reform of the early aughts, the McCain-Feingold Act.

As the borrowed title of Flake’s new book, Conscience of a Conservative, reminds us, Arizona Republicans have a history of marching to their own beat and incubating endangered political philosophies. And it is also in the tradition of Arizona Republicans to oppose presidents they consider dangerous. It was Goldwater who, along with Arizona congressman John Rhodes, made clear in 1974 to President Nixon, a man he’d long considered dangerous to the republic, that his presidency would not survive and that resignation was his only option. Famously, Goldwater traveled to the White House the night before Nixon’s resignation to meet with the president, to tell him that the writing was on the wall.

Jeff Flake is now having a Goldwater moment with Donald Trump, of whom his new book is highly critical. Bucking the narrative of the party faithful, who hold their nose as they stand by President Trump, Flake contends that the current administration represents the “executive branch in chaos.” And he is making such criticisms in a year when he must survive both a primary challenge and a general election to retain his Senate seat. But if history is any guide, Flake’s resistance to Trumpism will not be his undoing. Despite its reputation as a red state, Arizona produces national politicians who are anything but partisan. John McCain credits former U.S. senator Dennis DeConcini, a Democrat who represented Arizona from 1977 to 1995, for mentoring him when he took office. The senior senator brought McCain along to hold frequent bipartisan press conferences with reporters to foster debate. McCain tells similar stories about former Arizona Democratic congressman Mo Udall.

Nor do Arizona voters tend to vote straight-ticket. Trump won the state last year, but several darlings of the far Right suffered defeat, including Trump ally Joe Arpaio, the longtime Maricopa County sheriff and immigration firebrand.

Over the years, Flake has defied the party line several times, and he’s been no worse for the wear electorally. In 2013, his first year in the Senate, he voted in favor of the Employee Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) — the bill would prohibit, in hiring and employment, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity — for the second time, having previously done so as a House member. During the Bush administration, Flake became a vocal opponent of the Iraq War. In the debate over climate change, he has been warm, at times, to cap-and-trade. At the end of the last administration, he was the lone Republican senator to support opening trade with Cuba. He traveled with Obama to negotiate the deal.

Flake was also one of a handful of Republican senators to decline to endorse Trump during the 2016 campaign. He stayed home during the Republican National Convention last summer and chastised Trump for his campaign rhetoric and style.

This is not an act — it’s genuine Flake, and I’ve seen this first-hand. Eight years ago, wanting a break from undergraduate life, I took a leave for a semester and retreated to Arizona, my home state. I had dabbled in journalism but had never worked in politics. I applied for a job to be a press assistant for Representative Flake and was invited to the district office for an interview.

To my surprise, after I’d spent a few minutes with his chief of staff in a windowless, fluorescent-lit conference room, Jeff Flake walked through the door, dismissed his staffer, and began interviewing me himself. But Representative Flake was not particularly interested in hearing about my nonexistent qualifications for the role. It was a few days after my stepmother’s father, the late journalist Bob Novak, had died of a brain tumor. I had never met Flake, but he had sniffed out the family connection.

“It’s just such a loss,” Flake told me, recounting how he and Bob had frequently met for breakfast in Washington before Bob’s illness. He considered Bob a sounding board for his thoughts about breaking rank. Bob had gained some enemies on the right by questioning the Iraq War, which Flake by then also opposed. What he had really valued about Bob, Flake told me, was how willing he was to go against the grain on issues of the day.

I didn’t get the job, but this exchange, which put Flake’s commitment to thoughtfulness over partisan loyalty on display, has stuck with me. His critics on both the left and the right who have called his denunciations of Trump a stunt have obviously not been paying attention these 15 years that the man has been in office.

Noting that Flake’s approval ratings are at an all-time low in the state, some speculate that he must be fearful about reelection next year — some right-wing pundits have even posited that this so-called stunt will mean he’s finished. The Trump administration has already met with would-be primary challengers, and in August, the president himself tweeted that Flake was “toxic” and that it was “great to see” former state senator and perennial candidate Kelli Ward throw her hat in the ring to unseat the senator. Trump called him “weak on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate.” Of course, in Arizona, polls have not always been a reliable indicator of reelection chances. When McCain was running for reelection just two years ago, his approval ratings were among the lowest for any U.S. senator, yet he won reelection handily, first by obliterating Ward, his primary challenger, who now hopes to unseat Flake. The last time a Republican senator from Arizona lost a bid for reelection was 1926.

Arizona is a semi-open-primary state, meaning that nonaffiliated voters can vote in any party primary they choose. No Democratic presidential nominee has won Arizona since 1996, but registered independents, not Republicans, are the largest voting bloc in the state by far. Arizona’s independents don’t stay home when they have the chance to turn out in primaries, and it has usually been GOP contests that they have chosen to vote in.

It’s no secret that the Trump agenda, which will now be front and center in Flake’s reelection race, has failed to gain traction with independents. That bodes well for Flake in a Republican primary against a Trump loyalist. (Another potential Flake challenger recently characterized himself without irony as “drinking the [Trump] Kool-Aid.”)

On issues ranging from ENDA to Cuba, Flake’s past and present contrarian positions are in fact consistent with what most Americans think, according to polls. A few of Flake’s detractors point out that in recent months he has appeared to toe the line on the Trump administration’s policy agenda. In July, for example, the senator voted for the “skinny” Obamacare repeal, which went down to defeat.

But Flake’s warnings about Trump are as much a statement about the importance of our policymaking culture as they are about the content du jour of public policy. Consider the senator’s words in Politico on July 31:

There was a time when the leadership of the Congress from both parties felt an institutional loyalty that would frequently create bonds across party lines in defense of congressional prerogatives in a unified front against the White House, regardless of the president’s party. . . . Vigorous partisans, yes, but even more important, principled constitutional conservatives whose primary interest was in governing and making America truly great.

Twitter-length Flake last summer, on learning of Tim Kaine’s nomination to the Clinton ticket: “Trying to count the ways I hate @timkaine. Drawing a blank. Congrats to a good man and a good friend.”

Flake is trying to breathe life back into bipartisanship, which worked well for our country in the past, even if it’s an outlook that our current president doesn’t encourage. Like Goldwater and others who came before him, Jeff Flake will probably never be president himself (nor, at this moment, is there reason to believe he has his eyes on that prize). But a prediction: He will be Arizona’s senator come 2019. And he just might be the guy to get conservatism back on track.

Lucy Caldwell is the chief strategy officer and executive vice president of Crowdskout, a data-management, marketing, and analytics platform for campaigns, nonprofits, and advocacy. She previously worked as the senior political adviser to the Goldwater Institute.

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