President Donald Trump lashed out against Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham (SC) and Jeff Flake (AZ) Thursday morning, showing yet again that he is not afraid of risking Republican seats.
Trump called Flake “toxic” on Twitter early Thursday morning, expressing early support for the vulnerable Arizona senator’s primary contender, pro-Trump candidate Dr. Kelli Ward.
Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake Jeff Flake, who is WEAK on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate. He's toxic!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2017
He also attacked Graham, claiming the South Carolina senator misstated Trump’s comments on the terror attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, that killed one woman and left more than a dozen injured. Trump delivered what was largely seen as a defense of the alt-right on Tuesday, remarks that were chided by members of his own party.
Publicity seeking Lindsey Graham falsely stated that I said there is moral equivalency between the KKK, neo-Nazis & white supremacists......— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2017
...and people like Ms. Heyer. Such a disgusting lie. He just can't forget his election trouncing.The people of South Carolina will remember!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2017
Trump, who operates on loyalty, has shown time and again that he is willing to retaliate against members of his own party. He has already held members’ seats over their heads this year during the health care debate — and now is going notably further. And it’s no secret that Flake, who has a propensity for calling out Trump publicly — but largely votes in line with the party — is on the president’s blacklist.
Republicans only have eight Senate seats to defend in the 2018 election, compared with the 25 Democrats up for reelection, and only two of them — Flake and Sen. Dean Heller (NV) — are seats that Democrats have a real shot at picking off. Graham is not up for reelection until 2020.
Arizona, though a state with a heavy conservative tradition, also has a large Hispanic population that Democrats hope to fire up. And Trump’s increasingly low approval ratings and willingness to denounce the incumbent candidate certainly aren’t helping the party’s chances.
Trump has had it out for Flake for a long time
Flake is in a difficult position this year. He is being challenged by a far-right candidate in the primary, and — if he wins — he will face a challenging general election race as well.
Ward, a former state senator and Flake’s pro-Trump primary opponent, whom Trump supported in his Thursday morning tweet, has attacked Flake from the right for being against the president and soft on immigration. She also supported Trump’s initial comments on the Charlottesville attack, reiterating there was hate on “both sides.”
I agree - stop the hate, violence, & rhetoric on both sides - we need to stand together as Americans! https://t.co/MZ1poe7ih4— Dr. Kelli Ward (@kelliwardaz) August 13, 2017
According to a Politico report, White House officials have met with “at least three actual or prospective primary challengers to Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake in recent weeks,” including Ward, who has announced her bid, as well as Trump campaign COO Jeff DeWit and former state GOP Chair Robert Graham:
At a Republican National Committee meeting outside of San Diego in May, David Bossie, Trump’s deputy campaign manager and the president of the influential conservative outside group Citizens United, told Graham that either he or DeWit would likely get substantial backing from conservatives should either enter the contest, according to three people familiar with the conversation.
In response to Trump’s tweets, Flake’s campaign said they were not worried about the possible primary challenges Trump could be negotiating with behind the scenes.
"You don't serve Arizona by cutting backroom deals in Washington, DC. That's why Sen. Flake will always fight for the people of our state,” Will Allison, the Flake campaign’s spokesperson, told Vox.
A second Politico report earlier in July alleged that Trump floated spending millions of dollars out of his own pocket to oust Flake, who has been openly critical of his presidency:
In private, Trump has spoken of spending $10 million out of his own pocket to defeat an incumbent senator of his own party, Jeff Flake of Arizona, according to two sources familiar with the conversation last fall.
Flake has vocally opposed Trump throughout his campaign and presidency. He refused to support Trump’s nomination, repeatedly expressed skepticism over Trump’s alleged ties with Russia, and dampened expectations on the Republican agenda, contradicting Trump’s desire for fast policy wins. He tweeted against Trump’s comments on Charlottesville this week:
We can’t claim to be the party of Lincoln if we equivocate in condemning white supremacy— Jeff Flake (@JeffFlake) August 16, 2017
Trump’s presidency isn’t making it any easier for vulnerable Republicans
Democrats have some factors in their favor going into the 2018 midterm elections. Republicans only hold small majorities in both the House and the Senate. The Democratic base looks like it’s energized, which means it will be easier to fundraise, recruit good candidates, and get people out to vote. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop explained, the party of presidents with bad approval ratings usually does badly in the midterms, and President Trump’s rating is dismal:
Trump’s approval ... is well within the range of presidents who have lost 20 to 50 House seats. So if it stays around there, we should expect a rough result for him in the midterms.
Still, Democrats would need an “extraordinary amount of good political fortune to retake the Senate,” Prokop writes. “Considering how dismal the map is, the party would likely be thrilled to even maintain their current number of 48 seats. (Democrats will have a better shot at the Senate in 2020, when mostly Republican seats will be on the ballot.)”
Even so, Trump is making life very difficult for incumbent Republicans. The White House’s bungled comments have escalated tensions in Congress, and milquetoast Republican reactions are already becoming fodder for Democratic attacks.
The working relationship between the White House and Republican senators has already been strained, especially after America First, a pro-Trump Super PAC, ran an attack ad against Sen. Heller for coming out against the health bill — reportedly with the White House’s blessing, according to a report from the New York Times.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and a number of Republican senators weren’t happy with the campaign, and they made a point to tell the White House it was a “beyond stupid” move:
Over the weekend, Mr. McConnell made clear his unhappiness to the White House after a “super PAC” aligned with Mr. Trump started an ad campaign against Senator Dean Heller, Republican of Nevada, after he said last week that he opposed the health care bill.
The majority leader — already rankled by Mr. Trump’s tweets goading him to change Senate rules to scuttle Democratic filibusters — called the White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, to complain that the attacks were “beyond stupid,” according to two Republicans with knowledge of the tense exchange.
The move against Mr. Heller had the blessing of the White House, according to an official with America First, because Mr. Trump’s allies were furious that the senator would side with Nevada’s governor, Brian Sandoval, a Republican who accepted the Medicaid expansion under the health law and opposes the Republican overhaul, in criticizing the bill.
It’s not far-fetched to think America First might simply be taking cues from the president himself, given that he’s publicly threatening members’ seats in upcoming congressional elections if they voted against him.