The Trumpist insurgency has picked its champion in Arizona. On Tuesday night, Steve Bannon endorsed Kelli Ward’s primary challenge to Senator Jeff Flake in front of a crowd of proud “deplorables” at the Scottsdale Hilton.
“It’s an open revolt, and it should be,” Bannon said, before introducing the former state senator. “These people hold you in total contempt … They think you’re a group of morons.” Bannon went on to inform the Arizonans that Jeff Flake “probably in his gut … doesn’t like you,” and that the GOP Establishment wanted them to “shut up.”
In recent weeks, the Breitbart rebellion had eyed Arizona state treasurer Jeff DeWit and former state GOP chairman Robert Graham as potential standard-bearers in the Grand Canyon State. But Robert Mercer, the hedge-fund billionaire whose largesse puts teeth into Bannon’s bluster, has been on Team Ward since early August, when he committed $300,000 to her super-PAC.
Ward is a former physician, state legislator, and failed Senate candidate who’s best known for holding a town hall on “chemtrails,” and reacting to the news of John McCain’s brain cancer by calling on him to step down and give her his job.
Arizona is an increasingly purple state. In a midterm where Democrats are expected to be more energized than Republicans — and where Team Blue has few more promising Senate targets than Arizona — the GOP will need every advantage it’s got to prevent Democratic congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema from winning a seat in the upper chamber next year. Replacing a quasi-moderate incumbent like Jeff Flake with an alleged (though, not necessarily actual) conspiracy theorist who has repeatedly evinced impatience for John McCain’s death — and who was, just this week, publicly denounced by two former Breitbart reporters who’d worked on her 2016 Senate bid — might look like a classic example of conservative self-sabotage.
And yet, at this point, it’s entirely possible that Ward is a stronger general-election candidate than Flake is. Which isn’t saying much: The Arizona senator’s approval rating is presently hovering at around 18 percent.
Flake has taken a unique — and bizarre — approach to anti-Trump Republicanism. Arizona’s junior senator has done Trump’s bidding on virtually every matter that’s come before the upper chamber. This statistic does not merely reflect Flake’s conservative policy views: He 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. He 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. And, Flake joined all his Republican colleagues in voting to make a man who had written “birther” blogs a federal judge.
But while Flake walks the walk of Trump sycophant, he has emphatically refused to talk the talk. The senator penned a book-length indictment of the Trump presidency, and his party’s role in abetting it — one that condemns the birther movement that launched Trump’s political career, and the apparent, taped confession to serial sexual assault that nearly ended it.
The number of voters who want their senator to publicly disparage the Republican president while doing virtually everything in his power to advance that president’s policies appears to be rather small. Had Flake decided to take at least one high-profile, substantive stand against the GOP agenda, he might be in better shape: Despite giving the president far more cause for consternation, McCain’s approval rating is about 40 points higher among Arizona voters, largely thanks to high levels of support from the state’s Democrats.
But he didn’t. And now polls show Flake trailing Ward by double digits in the GOP primary, and Sinema by high single digits in the general election.
It remains to be seen whether Trump himself will officially endorse Ward’s campaign. Although he tweeted a pseudo-endorsement in August, the president has been trying to make nice with Mitch McConnell in recent days — and the Majority Leader has little affection for Flake’s challenger.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine Trump rallying to Flake’s defense. Beyond the fact that Trump despises public displays of disloyalty, there’s just little reason to think he’s a safer general-election bet. Ward may not be capable of winning over Democrats, but at least she can turn out Trump’s base. Flake, by contrast, can do neither — having done too little to distinguish himself from the president, and too much to live up to his own name.