Sen. Jeff Flake’s (R-Ariz.) shock decision not to run for reelection has shaken up the GOP primary race, giving Republicans new hope that they can hold onto the critical Senate seat in 2018.
In normal circumstances, an incumbent senator’s retirement would be bad news for the party holding the seat and a general election opportunity for its opponents.
But Flake’s uniquely weak position with voters and the expected general election flaws of his sole primary challenger, former state Sen. Kelli Ward, mean that Flake’s retirement could actually create a more favorable situation for Republicans.
Former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who endorsed Ward, has taken credit for the Arizona senator’s departure. But the now wide-open race could attract potential Republican candidates who see a new opportunity with the incumbent out of the race, with GOP establishment groups eventually coalescing around a candidate they think will fare better in the general election than Ward.
Republicans feel better about their prospects of keeping the seat in GOP hands, given Flake’s underwater numbers in both the primary and general election.
Flake’s public feud with Trump had weakened his standing with the conservative base and made him vulnerable in a primary. Flake kept up the attacks in his Tuesday speech on the Senate floor, saying he no longer wants to be “complicit.”
“The field as it currently stood was a definitive loser, whether it was Flake or Ward at the top of the ticket. This seat was history and it was hello Sen. Sinema,” an Arizona Republican operative told The Hill, referencing likely Democratic nominee Rep. Kyrsten Sinema. “Now Republicans have a chance to win this race.”
Nearly a dozen names are already being floated, as some potential candidates confirm that they’re considering bids while others are merely rumored to be mulling runs. The potential contenders include members of Congress, state lawmakers and former Trump campaign staffers.
Other potential candidates include former Rep. Matt Salmon, state Attorney General Mark Brnovich and businesswoman Christine Jones.
Even controversial former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was pardoned by Trump in August, said he wouldn’t rule out a bid.
Others have already indicated that they’re taking a look at the race, including two former Trump campaign staffers and GOP Rep. Trent Franks, who said he’s considering a bid, according to the Washington Examiner.
Arizona state treasurer Jeff DeWit, the chief operating officer of Trump’s Arizona campaign, told Fox Business Network that he’s waiting to see how the field shakes out over the coming days. He previously considered a Senate bid and met with the White House multiple times this year.
“I’m curious myself to see where we all stand, and there are a lot of rumored names to be in that race, mine obviously one of them,” DeWit said. “We’re all kind of waiting to do our homework and make the right decision.”
Robert Graham, a former Arizona GOP chairman who also worked on Trump’s state campaign, confirmed to The Hill that he’s taking a look at the race and will likely announce his decision in the next week or so.
Graham plans to travel to Washington, D.C. soon as he considers his bid. Graham had also previously met with the White House earlier this year.
“It definitely raises the bar for me in the sense that I am considering it,” Graham told The Hill. “All options are back on the table, but now it’s more than a casual discussion.”
Schweikert and Salmon are considered top-tier contenders, though some Arizona Republicans suspect that the two wouldn’t run against each other. Schweikert downplayed a potential bid on Wednesday, telling reporters on Capitol Hill “there’s not a burning desire to do it.” A source told The Hill that Salmon is looking at it and is “still digesting everything”.
McSally, who faces a tough reelection race for her House seat, is also seen as a top candidate. But strategists note it’s tough for someone outside of the Phoenix area to mount a statewide bid.
Both DeWit and Graham have the pro-Trump credentials, but some strategists note that they lack the name recognition of some of the other potential contenders.
While potential rivals weigh their bids, Ward has said she’s staying put. But she’ll likely face tough challenges from other conservative candidates who bring both higher name recognition and larger fundraising infrastructures.
Ward has amassed $1 million so far this year, but ended September with under $300,000 in the bank. Bannon recently campaigned with her, but it remains to be seen whether the White House will get involved in the race for her or another candidate.
Groups linked to the establishment have strongly signaled that they want an alternative to Ward. Senate Leadership Fund (SLF), a super PAC allied with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), made it clear after Flake’s retirement that they haven’t changed their tune on Ward, who they’ve dubbed “Chemtrail Kelli” in an effort to portray her as on the party’s fringe.
“Her whole entire reason for running in 2016 and now her claim that she was the conservative to the incumbent moderate — that’s gone now,” said a Republican political consultant in Arizona. “The moment one of those others get in the race I think is the moment her campaign begins to die a slow death.”
Sinema is expected to cruise to the Democratic nomination, and is seen as a formidable general election opponent and prolific fundraiser, with more than $4.1 million in her campaign account so far.
One of Cook Political Report’s election handicappers said that, even with Flake’s retirement, the race is still rated a toss-up. Flake’s retirement, according to Cook, “doesn’t immediately improve the GOP’s chances” of keeping the seat. But that could change depending on which candidate emerges from the GOP primary.
“I think we have got to feel good about our current candidate and putting together the resources she needs in running a strong race,” said Andy Barr, who worked for Democrat Richard Carmona, who ran against Flake in 2012. “Before we were going to be running against an unpopular Republican in a cycle that was going to be bad for Republicans, and now we’re just going to be running in a cycle that’s bad for Republicans.”
But Republicans believe that, whoever wins the primary, their candidate will be able to compete with Sinema. Arizona Democrats haven’t won a Senate seat in nearly three decades.
Sinema, who is chairwoman of the moderate Blue Dog PAC, will still need to clear the primary against attorney Deedra Abboud. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, noted that there’s some buzz around potential progressive candidates who could still jump into the primary.
“I think we have the issue coming up with [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] and DREAM Act [Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act] and tax reform and the budget,” Grijalva told The Hill, adding that he personally wants to remain in the House. “I think for many she could quell a lot of the rumble, depending what she does on those.”