The Daily Kos Elections Morning Digest is compiled by David Nir, Jeff Singer, Stephen Wolf, and Carolyn Fiddler, with additional contributions from David Jarman, Steve Singiser, Daniel Donner, James Lambert, David Beard, and Arjun Jaikumar.
● AZ-Sen: In a major surprise, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake announced on Tuesday that he would not seek re-election next year. In explaining his retirement, Flake professed his love for the Senate but, in a speech on the chamber’s floor, decried the “coarseness” of politics in the era of Donald Trump and, without calling out Trump by name, criticized his “[r]eckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior.” Ultimately, though, Flake’s decision seems to have come down to the viability of his own political career. “The path that I would have to travel to get the Republican nomination is a path I’m not willing to take, and that I can’t in good conscience take,” he told the Arizona Republic.
Flake’s diagnosis of his own woes is not misplaced. Flake has long been one of Trump’s most vocal critics in the GOP while at the same time serving as loyal vote for him in the Senate. This approach earned Trump’s vocal ire and seemed to turn off almost everyone in Arizona, Democrats and Republicans alike: Polls had shown Flake badly losing the GOP primary to former state Sen. Kelli Ward, a badly underfunded fringe figure who herself had lost to Sen. John McCain 51-40 last year, and in trouble against Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema in the general election.
So what will Flake’s abrupt departure mean for Arizona’s Senate race? With Flake running, the GOP was on a path toward nominating Ward, a woman best known for hosting a town-hall meeting about “chemtrails,” a bonkers conspiracy theory that holds that the vapor contrails produced by airplanes are actually mind-control chemicals. Several less, ah, exotic Republicans also hadn’t previously ruled out bids of their own, but had they joined in while Flake was still in the race, they might have actually saved his hide by splitting the anti-incumbent vote. Of course, had Flake “survived” in this manner, it could have left him crippled for the general election—and inspired furious Trump supporters to simply stay home.
Now the GOP will hope a stronger alternative emerges, but can this as-yet-unnamed savior make it through even a Flake-less primary, or will the likes of Ward successfully be able to sabotage any such hopes? A, if not the, key reason Flake’s approval rating tanked so hard with Republican voters is because of Trump’s relentless attacks, so can any replacement avoid stoking Trump’s wrath for an entire year? As CNN notes, Trump has now personally attacked one in five GOP senators. Anyone seeking to step into Flake’s shoes might fare no better.
However the GOP sorts itself out of this mess, Democrats will stay on the offensive. Arizona, which voted for Trump by a slim 48-45 margin—the closest presidential result in the state in two decades—is one of just two states where Democrats have a good chance to pick up a Senate seat from the GOP, and Sinema is a top recruit. But no matter what happens here, Republicans have to be worried about what it means when a scandal-free, 54-year-old first-term senator decides to call it quits rather than face his party’s base. Plenty of other incumbents might just feel the same way.