Bad Blood: White House Meets with Potential Jeff Flake Challengers

Anti-Trump senator with approval problems at home draws interest from would-be GOP opponents

by Kathryn Blackhurst | Updated 17 Jul 2017 at 11:28 AM

The White House has been meeting covertly with current and potential challengers of Sen. Jeff Flake’s (R-Ariz.) seat, according to a report Monday. The quiet campaign to recruit challengers for the incumbent may signify President Donald Trump hasn’t forgiven or forgotten how the deeply unpopular senator refused to endorse his candidacy and has become a stumbling block to his administration.

Although the White House has denied taking an active role in courting potential challengers to Flake challengers for the 2018 midterm elections, Politico reported Monday that Trump and White House officials have met or spoken to would-be candidates multiple times.

"Since taking office, Trump has spoken with Arizona state Treasurer Jeff DeWit, a top official on his 2016 campaign, on at least two occasions, according to two sources familiar with the talks," Politico reported. "More recently, since June, White House officials have also had discussions with former state Sen. Kelli Ward, who has announced her bid, and former Arizona GOP Chairman Robert Graham, who like DeWit is exploring a campaign."

Although Ward lost her primary bid against McCain's re-election, she is a staunch and vocal supporter of Trump. The contrast between Ward and Flake would be stark since the former has embraced Trump's drive for strict immigration enforcement, and the latter was part of the Gang of Eight group of senators who pushed for mass amnesty in 2013.

Trump won the state in the general election and carried the state's GOP primary by more than 20 percent.

Trump's former deputy campaign manager, David Bossie, reportedly told Graham that either he or DeWit could garner significant support from conservatives should they choose to challenge Flake officially in 2018. The president himself reportedly has been monitoring Flake's re-election closely and keeping tabs on the potential challengers.

Joshua Daniels, a spokesman for Flake, told Politico that the senator had "voted with President Trump over 95 percent of the time this year" and backed Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Justice Neil Gorsuch.

But observers have noted the bad blood between Trump and Flake remains.

"The mutual dislike runs deep," Constantin Querard, the Republican strategist who oversaw Sen. Ted Cruz's (R-Texas) 2016 presidential campaign in Arizona, told Politico. "That both complicates [Flake's] path to re-election by putting him at odds with much of the Arizona GOP, and it makes it very likely that if he gets a primary challenger that the Trump team likes, that challenger will be funded and supported in a way that makes beating Flake the most likely outcome."

Flake finds himself in an especially vulnerable position for his 2018 re-election bid, according to a poll released last week by Morning Consult. The poll, which identified the 10 most popular and 10 least popular senators, found that Flake was the third most-unpopular senator, surpassed only by his fellow Arizona Republican, Sen. John McCain, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Only 37 percent of the poll's respondents held a favorable view of Flake, while 45 percent held an unfavorable view.

During the course of Trump's presidential campaign, Flake repeatedly came out against him, saying on CBS News' "Face the Nation" in June 2016 that he hoped other Republican members of Congress would follow his lead and staunchly oppose Trump.

"I hope that a number of us at least will withhold endorsement," Flake had said. "None of us want to be in this position ... But there are certain things that you can't do as a candidate. And some of the things he's done I think are beyond the pale."

In a July 2016 interview with Vanity Fair, Flake added, "I want to support him, he's our nominee. I'd like to be able to get there, but given the statements he has made, it's very difficult for me to do so. I'm not convinced that he's changed."

"I can't see supporting him. But I'll continue to make the case: I think somebody should stand up and say, 'This is not where the party is, and we don't agree with that position,'" Flake added. "If people don't stand up on this, then this will have implications far beyond November. That's my biggest concern. Somebody's got to stand up to him."

As another slight against Trump, Flake refused to attend the Republican National Convention, telling reporters that he had to mow his lawn.

Trump reportedly weighed the idea of pledging $10 million against Flake's re-election bid, Politico reported in the fall.

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