More Drama in the Desert

By Jim Ellis

July 19, 2017 — The family feud between President Trump and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake (R) is back in high gear. Politico is reporting that Trump or key members of his internal staff have already met with or talked to three Grand Canyon State Republicans who are either opposing the Senator in the Republican primary or considering entering.

At this point, former state Sen. Kelli Ward is the announced primary challenger to Sen. Flake. She opposed Sen. John McCain in the 2016 Republican primary and held the veteran lawmaker to a 51-40 percent victory percentage. The closeness of the final total is likely a greater expression of GOP base vote dissatisfaction with McCain rather than a positive affirmation of Ward, however. Therefore, at this point, she may be over-rated as a viable 2018 challenger.

Former Arizona Republican Party chairman Robert Graham, a finance sector entrepreneur, is also mentioned as a potential Flake competitor, an unusual juxtaposition in that a former state chairman would be opposing an incumbent who he had once vociferously supported.

Perhaps the most formidable potential challenger is state Treasurer Jeff DeWit, a man who was President Trump’s Arizona campaign chairman and has already announced that he will not seek re-election to his current political position. DeWit, however, has not indicated that he would run for the Senate even when early 2017 political surveys actually showed him leading Flake by spreads well beyond the polling margin of error.

The looming question pertains to just how far Trump might go to settle the score he has with Flake, an after-effect over when the two jousted verbally in public for a sizable time during the presidential campaign cycle.

With very few targets against whom they can reasonably compete, the Democrats are forced to go after Flake even though he is from a relatively reliable Republican state. In this cycle, however, Flake appears to be the second most vulnerable Republican standing for election after Nevada Sen. Dean Heller. The other six in-cycle Republican incumbents look to be unassailable. Therefore, Flake can expect the maximum Democratic effort against him, thus exacerbating his politically precarious standing.

Currently, the Arizona events are falling just as the Democrats would hope. While Republicans vie for position against their incumbent senator, and now with the president’s potential informal backing if the Politico story is correct, Democrats look to have three strong potential candidates waiting for the right time to enter the race.

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Phoenix) had another strong financial quarter bringing in another $600,000-plus reportedly giving her more than $3.2 million cash-on-hand. She appears poised to jump into the race if she perceives Flake is drawing a strong Republican opponent. The recent unfolding events indicating the president is not likely to reconcile with the senator may well create the scenario for which Rep. Sinema hopes.

Two weeks ago, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton (D) made statements challenging Sen. Flake about the impending healthcare vote, hoping to put the senator in a “damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t” type of situation. Now with healthcare repeal postponed, the senator may have an easier decision to make when a new bill, or one in which they have previously supported, is brought before the body.

Dr. Randy Friese, a state representative from Tucson and the surgeon who saved former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ (D-Tucson) life when she was senselessly gunned down in 2011, is also a potential Democratic Senate candidate. He, too, would be formidable in a pairing with Sen. Flake and certainly has an impressive resume to present to the voting public.

Clearly this evolving race is moving into volatile political territory. The current developments are well worth watching for what will likely be a yearlong campaign once the potential participants from both parties finally decide upon whether or not they will become Senatorial candidates.

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