Sen. Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona and Trump Critic, Won’t Seek Re-Election

Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who has sparred frequently with President Donald Trump, will not run for re-election, he said Tuesday as part of a blistering floor speech bemoaning the changing tenor of politics in the United States.

“If I have been critical, it not because I relish criticizing the behavior of the President of the United States,” Flake said. “If I have been critical, it is because I believe that it is my obligation to do so, as a matter of duty and conscience.”

He continued, “The notion that one should stay silent as the norms and values that keep America strong are undermined and as the alliances and agreements that ensure the stability of the entire world are routinely threatened by the level of thought that goes into 140 characters — the notion that one should say and do nothing in the face of such mercurial behavior is ahistoric and, I believe, profoundly misguided.”

His decision means Flake joins retiring Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker as an outspoken critic of Trump with nothing to lose in the year before 2018’s midterm elections.

Flake’s political fortunes suffered as a result of his long-running feud with Trump — including an anti-Trump tome Flake published over the summer. Private polls conducted by Republican and Democratic groups in Arizona, sources with those groups said, showed him on track to lose badly in next August’s Republican primary¬†to challenger Kelli Ward.

His retirement is a double-edged sword for Trump’s White House: It opens the door for Flake to be replaced with a more supportive Republican. But his seat also now becomes a prime Democratic pick-up opportunity.

And it turns Arizona — once a Republican stronghold but increasingly competitive in recent elections — into perhaps the most important state in the 2018 midterms, with Flake’s seat now open and questions looming about Sen. John McCain’s long-term prognosis as he is treated for brain cancer.

In politics and personality, Trump and Flake have little in common.

Flake’s decision opens the door for Ward, a conservative former state senator who many Arizona Republicans see as a controversial and problematic general election candidate. But now that the seat is open, others, including state treasurer Jeff DeWit, the former Trump campaign chief operating officer, as well as several current and former members of Congress could consider entering the primary. The winner is likely to face Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema.

Flake’s congressional career came full circle. He began in the House in 2001 as an outsider raging against earmarks. By the time he launched his Senate campaign in 2012, he was a favorite of conservative groups like the Club for Growth, which had grown in power and influence on Capitol Hill. Now, Flake is again on the outs, with Trump’s populist policies taking hold with Republican voters.

Fight with Trump

In politics and personality, Trump and Flake have little in common.

Flake, a Mormon from the tiny town of Snowflake, Arizona, is polite and introspective. He journals regularly and, while in the House, regularly emailed his thoughts on travel and policy to a small, private list of family and friends.

He’s long expressed major policy differences with Trump — particularly on trade. In August he called Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership “a big mistake which will haunt us for a long time.” He has also defended the North American Free Trade Agreement, warning that its cancellation would badly damage the economies of border states like Arizona.

Flake refused to endorse Trump in the general election, and then three months ago published a book sharply critical of Trump titled “Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle.”

In the book, Flake worries about “the strange specter of an American president’s seeming affection for strongmen and authoritarians.” He also called now “one of the more reckless periods of politics in our history.” And he questioned whether Republicans having won the House, Senate and White House in 2016 was worth the cost of putting “at risk our institutions and our values.”

“We shouldn’t hesitate to speak out if the President ‘plays to the base’ in ways that damage the Republican Party’s ability to grow and speak to a larger audience,” Flake wrote.

Trump, meanwhile, had long plotted to oust Flake.

He told supportive Republicans in Arizona prior to the 2016 election that he would spend $10 million of his own money to see that Flake is unseated in the primary.

His White House has been in regular contact with DeWit, former state party chairman Robert Graham and other Republicans about the race. Former Trump White House chief strategist Steve Bannon backed Ward even while working in the White House, and Robert Mercer, the GOP mega-donor and close Bannon ally, has given $300,000 to a pro-Ward super PAC.

At an August campaign rally in Phoenix, Trump huddled backstage with DeWit, Graham and Rep. Trent Franks. Two sources familiar with the meeting told CNN it was focused on ousting Flake — who Trump calls “the flake.”