Jeff Flake’s Senate Seat Is The New Battleground For Trumpism

The Arizona Senate primary has already changed drastically over the last six months, with a series of surprise exits (Jeff Flake), entrances (Sheriff Joe), and changes in fortune (a Bannon endorsement). It’s another test of how to balance a Trump primary — and it could get way wilder.

When Arizona Rep. Martha McSally declared her Senate candidacy last week, she did so with a video that presented her as a foulmouthed combatant who would make President Trump proud.

“Like our president, I’m tired of PC politicians and their BS excuses,” she says before adding with a chuckle: “I’m a fighter pilot, and I talk like one. That’s why I told Washington Republicans to grow a pair of ovaries and get the job done.”

A beat later, text on screen calls attention to an F-bomb McSally reportedly dropped during last year’s health care debate. There also are several brief snippets of Trump praising the lawmaker. (“My friend, Martha McSally. … She’s the real deal. … She’s tough.”)

McSally’s video is the most explicit rendering of Trump’s outsized influence on a race that has taken many unexpected turns in the first year of his presidency. It’s a Republican primary that once figured to match vehemently anti-Trump Sen. Jeff Flake against an antiestablishment populist but now features three candidates — including Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff known for overzealous immigration enforcement and birtherism — competing for Trump’s affections and voters. It’s a seat Democrats have hopes of flipping in a state where demographics are changing in their favor, and where a prized recruit, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, is expected to be their nominee. It’s also a seat that could determine control of the Senate, where Republicans have a fragile majority.

Trump confirmed speculation he would put his thumb on the scale last August, when he called Flake “toxic” in a tweet that also encouraged Flake’s main challenger, former state Sen. Kelli Ward. Then Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief political strategist, left the White House and endorsed Ward as part of his effort to turn the 2018 midterms in a war against those seen as obstacles to Trumpism.

But Flake is now out of the picture, choosing to retire and ratchet up his Trump critiques from the refuge of lame-duck status. Bannon is gone, too. His catty comments about the Trump family in Michael Wolff’s newly published Fire and Fury made him toxic to the Trump movement and forced Ward to awkwardly distance herself from Bannon and his once-coveted support.

And Arpaio shook up the race yet again last week, launching his campaign days before McSally’s entry. The former Maricopa County sheriff has a more cosmic connection to Trumpism than McSally or Ward can claim: The president pardoned Arpaio last year, following his conviction on a contempt of court charge over his refusal to end a policing tactic to catch undocumented immigrants. Arpaio had been an early supporter of Trump’s campaign.

In a telephone interview Tuesday with BuzzFeed News, Arpaio said he would welcome an endorsement but had not heard from the president since announcing his candidacy.

“No, he hasn’t called me,” Arpaio said. “But I never ask. Maybe I’m a strange guy, maybe I’m too old-fashioned of a guy, because when I give favors, I don’t ask for favors in return. If he doesn’t decide to come out front, that’s OK with me. I presume he may stay out of the primary.”

Arpaio nonetheless repeatedly mentioned his relationship with Trump. “I was with the president from day one,” he said. “I haven’t become a supporter just recently just to win elections.”

That’s an obvious reference to McSally, who did not endorse Trump in 2016 and was among those who criticized him after hearing the Access Hollywood audio in which Trump bragged about groping women. Democrat Hillary Clinton won McSally’s House district by five points that year. But since Flake’s retirement announcement, McSally has taken great care to demonstrate an affinity for Trump and a fluency in Trumpism. When an Associated Press reporter asked McSally if she is a trained singer — she performed the national anthem at a Phoenix Suns basketball game — the former fighter pilot replied: “No, I’m a trained killer.”

McSally also is toeing a harder line on immigration, mindful that she is being attacked from the right by critics who say her voting record paints the picture of a pro-amnesty squish. On Fox News this week, McSally railed against passing a clean DREAM Act without additional border security measures. And when she was asked about Trump’s remark about immigrants from “shithole” countries, McSally defended him, noting that she also speaks “a little salty behind closed doors at times.”

This realignment is necessary, several Republicans told BuzzFeed News, because McSally is the establishment candidate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who prefers to see Flake’s seat go to another ally, made no secret that she was his top pick in the race. And that’s dicey for McSally.

Republicans want to avoid any of the Trump-versus-McConnell dynamics that have played out in the party, most notably with disastrous results in the recent special Senate election in Alabama, where a primary produced a series of bad outcomes and ultimately a loss in a very red state. The Arizona primary has similar players: in McSally, a McConnell-backed candidate courting Trump, and in Arpaio and Ward, fringy culture warriors asserting themselves as the truest Trumpers.

McSally’s team did not answer questions about whether she has discussed the Senate race with the president or received feedback from his advisers at the White House.

“For 26 years, at home and in six combat deployments, Martha has had the honor and duty of serving this nation in uniform and she is going to work around the clock to improve the lives of Arizona families,” McSally spokesperson Andrea Bozek said in an emailed statement. “As Martha said in her announcement, she understands we are in a crucial time for our country and she is going to take nothing for granted in this race because we can’t allow the liberal chameleon Kyrsten Sinema to represent Arizona families in the United States Senate.”

Republicans partial to McSally worry that Arpaio and Ward and the Trump-heavy politics of the moment will force her too far to the right in the primary, making it difficult to move to the center and beat Sinema in a general election. The early conventional wisdom on Arpaio’s presence in the race had him splitting the antiestablishment vote with Ward and securing a win for McSally. But some believe Arpaio’s celebrity status among conservatives and his electoral success in Arizona’s most populous county could make him the frontrunner in the primary.

“I don’t know there will be a split between Ward and Arpaio as much as consolidation behind Arpaio,” one GOP consultant closely watching the race told BuzzFeed News.

A poll of likely primary voters last week by ABC’s Phoenix affiliate and OH Predictive Insights showed McSally at 31%, Arpaio at 29%, and Ward at 25%. Another poll of likely voters, conducted by Data Orbital after McSally officially joined the race, had McSally at 31%, Arpaio at 22%, and Ward at 19%. Both surveys found Trump to be a positive factor. A majority of respondents to the Data Orbital poll had a strongly favorable opinion of him. And Arpaio’s support jumped to 35% when the ABC/OHPI poll presumed a Trump endorsement for him while also factoring in McConnell’s support for McSally (31%) and Bannon’s for Ward (13%).

Arpaio theorized that Trump might stay out of the race altogether to avoid another clash with McConnell, whom Arpaio referred to as “McDonnell” before correcting himself.

Eric Beach, an adviser to Ward’s campaign and to a pro-Trump group that has been aligned with Bannon, downplayed Bannon’s endorsement. But he also asserted that Ward’s aggressive campaign chased Flake from the race — something that probably wouldn’t have happened without Bannon’s personal involvement. (Flake announced his retirement a week after Bannon introduced Ward at her kickoff event.)

“Yeah, of course Bannon was there, but she’s not an insurgent candidate at this point,” Beach told BuzzFeed News, noting that Ward, a former state lawmaker, gained statewide name recognition after challenging Sen. John McCain in the 2016 primary. “Donald Trump is the leader of this movement, but Kelli Ward is a big part of this movement and has been for years.”

Beach said McSally is playing to Trump voters because consolidating the establishment vote will not be enough and discounted the notion that Arpaio and Ward will cancel out each other.

“I think what you’re looking at is a 60% piece of the pie that Kelli Ward and Sheriff Joe are vying for, but the reality is this campaign is months away,” Beach said.

But in a race that has been full of surprises, another potential race-shifting development has campaign handlers and observers whispering. If McCain, who announced in July 2017 that he has been diagnosed with brain cancer, retires before May 30, the filing deadline for the August primary, a special election will be held this year to fill the remainder of his term. A second Senate seat would be up for grabs.

Given the sensitivity surrounding the subject — Ward has been criticized for publicly suggesting that McCain resign and that she be considered as his successor — most won’t discuss scenarios on the record. Republican Gov. Doug Ducey would appoint an interim replacement, and it’s unknown whether he’d choose one of the candidates for Flake’s seat or someone else who would run to keep the seat. Selecting McSally might further brand her as an establishment fixture. Selecting someone else seen as too moderate for Trumpism could inspire another populist challenger à la Arpaio or Ward.

Arpaio, the only one who talked openly of the prospect, did so carefully.

“First of all, that position will be appointed by the governor,” he said. “And the governor, I supported him out of all the [gubernatorial] candidates. And I would never ask him for anything. ... I don’t know. I just have to do my campaign and raise the money.”

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