We still don’t know President Donald Trump’s talking points for his campaign-style rally in Phoenix Tuesday night. But Republicans appear to be preparing for the president to attack a vulnerable US senator in his own backyard.
In the lead-up to Trump’s rally, the Senate Leadership Fund, a Super PAC aligned with establishment Republicans, released an aggressive attack ad against Dr. Kelli Ward, the pro-Trump candidate challenging vulnerable Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake. The ad — “Chemtrail Kelli” — painted Ward as a far-right crazy who has blamed Sen. John McCain for ISIS and wastes taxpayer dollars in the name of conspiracy theories.
Awkwardly, Trump expressed early support for Ward’s run as recently as last week, lashing out against Flake on Twitter and calling him “toxic.”
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
Trump has made it very clear he isn’t keen on either of Arizona’s Republican senators and is not afraid of risking Republican seats. 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.
Arizona, though a state with a heavy conservative tradition, also has a large Hispanic population that Democrats hope to turn out to the polls. 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 a 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 terror 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,” 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 challengers 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.
Flake told reporters at an Arizona Chamber of Commerce breakfast this week that he’s not fretting too much about what Trump says. “I’m running my own campaign. It’s going well. And what the president does, that’s his prerogative,” he said.
A second Politico report earlier in July alleged that Trump floated spending millions of his own money 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 has written an entire book critiquing Trump’s brand of Republicanism, called Conscience of a Conservative. He tweeted against Trump’s comments on Charlottesville:
We can’t claim to be the party of Lincoln if we equivocate in condemning white supremacy— Jeff Flake (@JeffFlake) August 16, 2017
Last week, Flake penned an op-ed in the New York Times in favor of low-skilled immigration, in direct contradiction to the president’s immigration agenda.
Trump’s presidency isn’t making things 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.