Donald Trump’s agenda skates on thin ice in the Senate. Mitch McConnell’s slim majority couldn’t support the weight of the president’s health-care bill — and it’s unclear whether the GOP’s four-vote advantage will be sturdy enough to prevent tax reform from also falling through.
One vote Trump hasn’t had to worry about, however, is that of Arizona’s junior senator. Jeff Flake has voted in line with the president’s wishes 93.5 percent of the time — a level of legislative loyalty far beyond what one would expect from a purple-state senator up for reelection in 2018. According to FiveThirtyEight’s model, a lawmaker in Flake’s position would typically vote with the president only 60.3 percent of the time.
And Flake’s fealty to Trump isn’t merely a reflection of their mutual conservatism. The Arizona senator has voted to confirm a retired neurosurgeon with no experience in government or housing policy — who had recently declared himself unqualified to run a federal agency — as the head of Housing and Urban Development. Unlike his colleague from Arizona, Flake voted for the “skinny repeal” health-care bill, a piece of legislation so ill-designed that several of his conservative colleagues only voted for it on the understanding that it would never actually become law. Even though Flake is a staunch proponent of free trade, he deferred to the president’s wishes and voted to confirm an anti-NAFTA trade representative. And, although the senator claims to abhor his party’s flirtations with racism, he joined all his Republican colleagues in voting to make a man who had written “birther” blogs a federal judge.
Given these facts, one might think that the last thing Trump would want to do is put Flake’s reelection in jeopardy. After all, this is a vote he can’t take for granted: The president won Arizona by less than four percentage points last fall; the state’s demographics are becoming steadily more favorable for Democrats; and most forecasters expect that the 2018 midterms will be kind to Team Blue. On top of all that, the Democrats already have a top-tier candidate in three-term congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema. If the GOP didn’t enjoy the advantage of incumbency in Arizona next fall, Sinema might well be the favorite in the Grand Canyon State’s Senate race.
But while Jeff Flake walks the walk of Trump sycophant, he emphatically refuses to talk the talk. The Arizona senator just released a book-length indictment of the Trump presidency, and his party’s role in abetting it. He has condemned the birther movement that launched Trump’s political career — and the apparent, taped confession to serial sexual assault that nearly ended it.
And since Trump is far more invested in advancing a flattering image of himself in the media than in enacting a policy vision, he has no qualms about undermining one of his party’s most vulnerable senators.
Kelli Ward is a two-term Arizona state senator who launched a primary campaign against the man she calls “Flake the Snake” in October of last year. Her campaign recently met with Trump-administration officials, and one of the president’s top donors — the reclusive hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer — has already pledged $300,000 to the super-PAC supporting her run.
Meanwhile, Flake boasts one of the lowest home-state approval ratings of any U.S. senator, a fact that reflects his toxicity with Trump’s faithful.
Perhaps, at this point, Ward will prove a more formidable general-election candidate than a Republican who has inflamed the right with his words, and alienated the center-left with his votes. But if Trump cared more about advancing his agenda than protecting his ego, he would have worked to bury the hatchet with Flake a long time ago, and shored up the senator’s standing with his base.
The fact that Trump was willing to undermine — and, now, openly gun for — one his agenda’s congressional loyalists should be a warning to the rest of his party: Trump didn’t come here to make friends; or build a durable GOP majority; or pass legislation; or condemn neo-Nazis in unequivocal terms, if doing any of those things requires the billionaire to forgo the instant gratification of his every impulse.