By Jim Ellis
Oct. 26, 2017 — Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake (R) surprised most in the political world during a speech a couple days ago from the Senate floor, and thereby to the nation, that he will not seek re-election for a second term.With the text of his retirement address devoted mostly to his long-enduring battle with President Trump, Sen. Flake admits to having “regrets” about leaving elected politics and over the nation’s current state of affairs. But, the more salient reason hastening his departure is likely the polling data that shows his standing among Republicans is worse than the Arizona electorate as a whole, and that he would likely lose to both GOP challenger Kelli Ward, a former state senator who held Sen. John McCain to a 51-40 percent victory in the 2016 Republican primary, and US Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Phoenix) in the general election.
Contrary to media and Democratic Party analyses, the Republicans’ chances of holding this Senate seat actually improve with Sen. Flake’s departure. It was clear that his presidential sparring with Trump had left him worse for wear, and the GOP will likely be able to nominate a less encumbered, and thereby stronger, general election candidate.
Despite her relatively good showing against veteran senator and former Republican presidential nominee McCain, Ward does not match up well against Rep. Sinema who, at least until the Flake announcement, was quickly becoming the consensus Democratic candidate.
Looking to statewide officials, Grand Canyon State Treasurer Jeff DeWit, who long ago announced that he would not run for re-election but has so far not entered the Senate race or any other, remains a top option. As President Trump’s former Arizona campaign chairman, he can count on some important national support.
Rep. Martha McSally (R-Tucson) might be a tailor-made statewide Republican candidate. Already facing a tough re-election fight in her swing southeastern Arizona congressional district where she scored a 57 percent win in November, Rep. McSally has already amassed more than $1.45 million in her campaign account, all of which would be transferable to a Senate campaign. A former Air Force pilot, McSally would have a military resume untouchable by other candidates and would certainly create a strong contrast with Rep. Sinema in a paired general election.
Rep. David Schweikert (R-Fountain Hills/Scottsdale) is another potential. He had toyed with challenging Sen. McCain from the right last year, but backed away in order to remain in the House. Schweikert is a former state Representative and Maricopa County Treasurer. In the latter position, he won a countywide election from a place that constitutes more than 61 percent of the state’s population.
Other potential candidates currently representing US House districts are Reps. Paul Gosar (R-Prescott), freshman representative and state Senate President Andy Biggs (R-Gilbert), and Trent Franks (R-Peoria/Sun City). Others mentioned as additional possibilities are former state Republican Party chairman Robert Graham, controversial ex-Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and Arizona State University Regent Jay Heiler.
Avoiding the nasty primary involving Flake, and thereby President Trump, will benefit the Republicans. Therefore, GOP chances of holding the Arizona seat in 2018 actually increase because of Sen. Flake’s retirement.
This seat will remain a major Democratic conversion target, but the early picture greatly changes considering the after-effects of yesterday’s announcement.