PRESCOTT, Ariz. — Over two months, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has dodged bullets on a baseball field, buried his elderly father and watched one of his political mentors, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), battle terminal brain cancer.
And that was all before he published a book that doubles down on his criticisms of President Trump, which in less than two weeks since its release, has once again put him at odds with members of his own party.
The best-selling book may make Flake the most high-profile Republican casualty of the Trump era. Or, he may prove that embracing one’s core principles can still be appealing to voters.
He was already facing a primary challenge from a nationalist who campaigns with sharp-edged, Trump-style bombast when his party launched a revolt against his 160-page critique on the president. On Friday, a Democratic congresswoman with has a sizable campaign war chest also signaled she’s likely to run against Flake.
For now, he’s laughing off his newfound challenges.
“It’s been quite a summer, it really has,” he said after meeting with business executives here, explaining later, “We knew from the beginning that we’d have a tough primary, we’d have a tough general [election].”
Confronted with the challenge, Flake added, “You just do it.”
That approach helps explain his new book, “Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle.” Not even his closest political advisers knew that he’d been working on the book for more than a year. After its Aug. 1 release, the book quickly jumped on to The New York Times bestseller list — although a far funnier, less serious tome by his colleague, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), currently outranks him.
Page after page, Flake lobs strong broadsides against Trump, like how he wooed voters with “easy answers to hard questions, sweetened by free stuff” — basically a “late-night infomercial” that was “free of significant thought.”
Flake became “heartsick,” he said, as Republicans embraced Trump. Now, there’s “more nastiness and dysfunction in the election’s wake,” he writes.
But the challenges Flake faced in recent months helped temper some of that nastiness and dysfunction, at least temporarily.
In mid-June, Flake was on the baseball field in Alexandria, Va., when House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) was shot. After ducking out of the line of fire, he ran onto the field to help treat a wounded congressional aide and Scalise. Congress quickly resumed its duties after the shooting, and Flake has taken some time to reflect on what happened.
“When the volley of shots rang out, I remember turning to the dugout and seeing where I had to run and bullets hitting the gravel,” he said. “And I just remember for some reason — the thought just seemed to last awhile — but: Why? Us? Here? It just seemed so incongruent, and I still have a hard time understanding how somebody can look out at a bunch of middle-aged men playing baseball and see the enemy.”
Flake acknowledged the irony of being the target of a political assassination attempt while he was putting the finishing touches on a book that conveys his worry about how the coarse nature of modern politics could spark violence.
“It’s just — it’s just got to stop,” he said.
Less than two weeks after the shooting — and just after his book went to print — Flake’s 85-year-old father died, and the Arizona senator’s absence further stalled the Senate’s consideration of a GOP health-care reform plan. Without Flake, it was impossible for Republicans to hold a procedural vote to advance the bill.
Flake quickly returned to Washington, but then another life event interrupted the health-care debate — the unexpected cancer diagnosis of McCain, who eventually derailed the bill by blocking further consideration of it. In the final minutes before McCain’s dramatic late-night vote against the measure, Flake tried one last time on the Senate floor to convince his senior colleague to support the bill.
It didn’t work — and then Flake released his book.
Now, the most partisan of Arizona Republicans believe that Flake — despite supporting the Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act and supporting Trump’s judicial and Cabinet nominees — is among those most responsible for blocking Trump’s legislative agenda. They don’t like that he supported a bipartisan immigration plan in 2013, flew to Cuba at President Obama’s request to help relaunch diplomatic relations in 2014 and supports global trade pacts like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“The Flake model is you have to be conservative every six years,” said Constantin Querard, a conservative Republican campaign consultant based in Phoenix who does not support Flake.
“What is unusual from the break in his normal behavior is that this time, instead of campaigning as a conservative that conservatives would recognize, he’s chosen to redefine it and tell all the conservatives that they’re wrong and not really conservatives and that he’s not only a conservative but he’s going to teach us what conservatism is,” Querard said. “And he just doesn’t have any credibility among the grass roots to attempt that.”
That’s why Kelli Ward believes she has a chance to defeat Flake. An osteopathic physician and former state lawmaker, Ward tried and failed to defeat McCain in a primary two years ago by making his advanced age an issue. This time, she will use Flake’s dislike of Trump against him in a state that supported the president last year by 3.5 points.
Ward is unapologetically strident in her approach, embracing the tone and temperament that Flake repeatedly abhors in his book and describes as “a shatter politics.” She recently sent a fundraising letter to supporters with envelopes emblazoned with the widely-rebuked image of comedian Kathy Griffin posing with what appears to be Trump’s severed head.
Inside the envelope, Ward wrote that she used the image because, “it’s important to see what we’re up against.”
In an interview, Ward said that Flake’s national television interviews to promote the book are helping her. “Every time he’s on, I’m gaining money and manpower.”
While she won nearly 40 percent of the primary electorate in 2016, Ward believes her support will grow this year because of Flake’s decision to lash out at Trump. Much of her financial support comes from out-of-state, she said, because Republican voters “want somebody that is strong with a backbone, with a brain who will go do the job.”
Did she mean to suggest that Flake has no backbone or brain?
“You said it,” Ward said. “I don’t think that Jeff Flake has represented — his values don’t align with those of his constituents.”
Trump has vowed that Flake will lose his reelection fight next year and some of his allies are falling in line behind Ward. On Friday, she hired consultants Eric Beach and Brent Lowder, who in 2016 ran the Great America PAC that spent nearly $30 million to back Trump. And a super PAC launched to support her bid recently picked up a $300,000 donation from Robert Mercer, the secretive billionaire who supported Trump’s campaign.
But Ryan O’Daniel, who managed McCain’s 2016 reelection, said that Flake faces a similar political dynamic that McCain faced two years ago. Despite Ward’s concerns, Flake is likely to earn the support of national conservative groups because of his solid conservative voting record, he said.
“He’s always fought against earmarks and for smaller government, so it’s going to be very hard for anyone to out-conservative Jeff Flake in this primary,” O’Daniel explained. “Especially somebody who doesn’t have the positive name ID, infrastructure or money.”
Democrats, meanwhile, may have caught a break against Flake. On Friday, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who represents a Phoenix-area district, said in a statement that she is “seriously considering” entering the race, and several Democrats now believe she is all but certain to run.
Despite coming up short in statewide races since 2010, Democratic leaders believe Sinema’s moderate voting record and $3 million campaign war chest can help them capitalize on the growing anti-Trump and anti-Washington sentiment among voters.
As he travels the state this month, Flake is eager to remind voters about his book — and that despite its content, he does occasionally agree with Trump.
“I haven’t always agreed with this administration. There’s a book out there,” he said during the meeting with business leaders. He explained that he’s “more than pleased” with how the Trump administration is handling regulatory issues and how the Environmental Protection Agency is now working to ease Obama-era federal oversight of western lands.
In an interview afterward, Flake noted that after being elected to the House in 2000, he opposed George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education bill and his Medicare prescription-drug benefit plan. “But I was with him on other things.”
The situation with Trump “is the same,” he said. “You shouldn’t be a rubber stamp. I think that’s what Arizona voters expect of me.”
Or, as Flake writes in his book, “We must be willing to risk our careers to save our principles.”