At a Cochise County Oktoberfest event earlier this month, Sen. Jeff Flake received zero ballot petition signatures, according to Cochise County Republican Precinct Commiteeman, David Dolge.
Dolge said a ballot petition was circulated around the event, where about 70 people signed for Kelli Ward. He said many republicans in the county feel underrepresented by the senator, which may be why he didn’t receive any signatures.
Flake speaks out about his beliefs, which has landed him in hot water with many of his constituents throughout the state. With Republican challenger, Kelli Ward already announcing her run to take the Senate seat, Flake is vulnerable.
But University of Arizona Professor Chris Weber said it is too early to tell just how vulnerable he is. Weber, who specializes in political psychology and political behavior pertaining to American political campaigns, said there are many factors to consider before the general election, but a sense of vulnerability does exist for Flake in terms of a primary election.
“Much of it hinges on President Trump and the relationship between Flake and Trump,” said Weber. “Much of it also hinges on the approval or popularity of Trump, particularly within the state. Many members of the GOP have been kind of reluctant to speak if they oppose the president’s policies because they don’t know if it will upset their constituents.”
Flake has not been so reluctant. He has spoken out about Trump’s actions. In an interview with MSNBC, Flake told host Mika Brzezinski that the Russia investigation should have “set off more alarm bells than it did.” He expressed concern over the president firing FBI Director James Comey and the potential firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
This apparent opposition to the president has many Arizona Republicans upset with their senator. Gary Morris, chairman for the Gila County Republican Party, said he believes Flake is vulnerable in his county, partially for that reason. At their annual Reagan Day Dinner, held Sept. 1., constituents were able to ask Flake questions directly.
“Most of the questions challenged Flake on his positions and it was clear there was a difference of opinion between the position of the person asking the question and the response of Sen. Flake,” said Morris. “It was pretty universal across all questions that were asked of him.”
Morris said many questions revolved around supporting the president. “I think we all recognize, but not everyone is going to agree, that what we’re seeking is 90 percent support for the president in some form or manner that’s not just talk, but demonstrating support,” he said.
While Flake has been outspoken about opposing Trump, his voting record aligns with Trump 91.5 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight. The senator also confirmed all of Trump’s appointees, many of whom were heavily contested, like Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The perceived vulnerability of Flake has state Democrats feeling optimistic. “It’s still very early to be talking about the prospects of winning the election and changing the political landscape,” said spokesman for the Arizona Democratic Party, Enrique Gutiérrez. “A lot of things could change, but we like our chances in 2018.”
Gutiérrez said changes in demographics throughout Arizona are impacting the political climate, opening up the state to become more competitive politically.
“We’ve got to remember, Jeff Flake didn’t win by a whole lot in his first election against Carmona, he won by a three percent margin,” said Gutiérrez. “He hasn’t necessarily been the most popular conservative for Republicans. Him trying to appeal to independents and moderates isn’t boding well with him. It’s given Democrats an opportunity to capitalize on that.”
Gutiérrez said Arizona could potentially become a “purple state,” like Virgina or North Carolina, where both parties are more competitive and control frequently changes. “If Democrats are able to take that seat, it gives them an opportunity to play,” he said. “People are better-served when you don’t have one party controlling all facets of government.”
Kyrsten Sinema, the U.S. representative for Arizona’s 9th Congressional District, is already a popular challenger for the Senate seat for many state Democrats, despite her not announcing her candidacy for the office.
According to Gutiérrez, the latest polling by Gerstein Bocian Agne Strategies, a survey research and strategic consulting firm based in Washington D.C., shows Sinema beating Flake. Their data suggests Sinema would beat Flake 47 -40 in a general election.
The same survey showed Ward beating Flake for the Republican nomination, 58 -31. Gutiérrez said if Ward happens to win the nomination, “she increases the chance of [Democrats] flipping the seat from red to blue. I don’t think she has any appeal with those Arizonans that are more moderate or independent. I don’t see her actually succeeding. Her challenge is to get out of the primary.”
Flake released a book on Aug. 1., detailing his feelings about the current political climate in the United States entitled “Conscience of a Conservative; a Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle,” emulating famed Arizonan legislator Barry Goldwater, in his 1960 book of essentially the same name. Flake writes, “There was a time when the leadership of the Congress from both parties felt an institutional loyalty that would frequently create bonds across party lines in defense of congressional prerogatives in a unified front against the White House, regardless of the president’s party.” He urges both parties to work together to pass legislation during these tumultuous times.
In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Flake said Goldwater wrote the book in 1960, to convey the party was straying away from the party’s tenets, issues in policy like limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility. He said he wrote the book because we are “facing a similar crisis now.”
“We’ve taken up an unfamiliar banner, this populism, and in some cases, xenophobia, anti-immigration, protectionism,” said Flake. “That’s not familiar to us and I don’t think that is a governing philosophy. On the policy side, we have an issue. Being conservative means in terms of foreign policy, that you’re steady and measured in your use of diplomacy and force. We embrace our allies and recognize our enemies.”
Weber said this may be Flake’s way of reconnecting with Arizona voters. “He’s reminding people of his values and principles as a conservative and may be convincing people,” said Weber. “He’s a conservative voice, he represents conservative values within the state.”
After the Trump Administration’s announcement on Sept. 5. to rescind the Obama-era program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, Flake spoke in opposition. Just after the announcement, Flake took to Twitter to inform his constituents of his position on the matter in five posts.
“It should be evident from the fear and confusion surrounding #DACA that executive actions have a short-shelf life and are a poor substitute for permanent, bipartisan legislation to fix our broken immigration system,” he said. “The ball is back in Congress’ court where it belongs….”
Dolge said Cochise County residents are concerned with immigration and want the senator to have a stricter stance on legislation regarding the matter. “We have 86 miles of border in our county. Illegal immigration and drugs are a big thing down here,” said Dolge. He also said they want more appearances by their representatives and tend to vote for candidates who have a stronger presence in the area.
“We like to have people come down here and visit us, talk to us. People would be happy with that, but they don’t,” Dolge said. Did either McCain or Flake come down here during the month of August? No. Did Martha McSally show up during the month of August? Yes.”
In the next election, Morris said he and many of his fellow Republicans in Gila County are hoping for “any candidate that sticks to the nationally adopted principles, and represents and demonstrates support for the president moving forward.”
When asked about whether the state could turn blue in the next election, Weber said “we have a state that has a shifting demographic profile, and that is probably not going to turn blue anytime soon, but it’s certainly less red than it was. I think politics are so different now, that the divisions that exist are unique and it makes it harder to accurately forecast the outcome.”
Clarisse Markarian is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter.