Flake was one of the most vulnerable Republican senators up for reelection next year. A vocal critic of President Donald Trump throughout and since the 2016 campaign, Flake said it became clear that that opposition would make it impossible for him to get through a Republican primary. He took to the Senate floor to deliver a full-throated denunciation of Trump.
“We must never adjust to the coarseness of our dialogue, with the tone set up at the top,” Flake said. “We must never accept the deadly sundering of our country. The personal attacks, threats against principles and freedoms and institutions, and flagrant disregard for decency.” “Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has become excused as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified,” Flake continued. “And when such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is something else. It is dangerous to a democracy.”
The decision came with Flake trailing in public polling to former state Sen. Kelli Ward, an arch-conservative endorsed by former White House strategist Steve Bannon who mainstream Republicans consider unelectable in a general election. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, a progressive-turned-moderate serving her fourth term in Congress, is the likely Democratic candidate in the contest.
“Steve Bannon adds another scalp to his collection,” said Andy Surabian, a senior advisor to the pro-Trump nonprofit Great America Alliance and a top ally of Bannon’s.
Establishment Republicans said they hoped Flake’s retirement would increase their chances of defeating Ward, allowing them to unite behind an establishment candidate without a history of attacking the president, who remains sacrosanct with GOP primary voters.
It’s not clear who else might enter the GOP primary, though operatives mentioned state Treasurer Jeff DeWit, Rep. Martha McSally and Rep. David Schweikert as possibilities who could unite both wings of the party. One top Republican strategist said Gov. Doug Ducey would likely play a leading role in finding a candidate.
Flake refused to endorse Trump during the 2016 election, and wrote a book criticizing the president as insufficiently conservative. The continued potshots at the president eroded Flake’s own support among GOP primary voters, but he refused to back down and had begun hiring campaign staff, raising additional money and preparing his reelection bid.
“We’ve taken a banner that is not familiar to us as Republicans. And I don’t know how long this will last,” Flake told POLITICO in an interview last week, referring to the Trump-led GOP.