Flake stuns with fiery exit

Flake stuns with fiery exit
© Greg Nash

Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat Sasse: RNC help for Roy Moore 'doesn't make any sense' Sasse calls RNC decision to resume support for Moore 'bad' and 'sad' MORE (R-Ariz.) shocked his colleagues on Tuesday by announcing that he will not run for reelection, saying he can no longer be “complicit” in President Trump’s transformation of the Republican Party.

Flake was headed for a tough primary battle next year, with polls showing him down by double-digits to a primary challenger backed by former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon.

Facing a possible election loss, Flake, 54, joined Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerFormer Dem Tenn. gov to launch Senate bid: report McConnell 'almost certain' GOP will pass tax reform Former New Mexico gov: Trump's foreign policy is getting 'criticized by everybody' MORE (R-Tenn.) in heading for the exit. And like Corker, he used the occasion of his retirement to sound the alarm about where the GOP is headed — with much of the focus on the man in the Oval Office.

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“Here’s the bottom line: 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,” Flake told The Arizona Republic. 
“It would require me to believe in positions I don’t hold on such issues as trade and immigration, and it would require me to condone behavior that I cannot condone.”

In a dramatic flourish, Flake went directly to the Senate floor after announcing his retirement. There, he delivered an extraordinary, 17-minute speech that appeared to be aimed squarely at his Republican colleagues. 

“It is clear at this moment that a traditional conservative who believes in limited government and free markets, who is devoted to free trade, and who is pro-immigration, has a narrower and narrower path to nomination in the Republican Party — the party that for so long has defined itself by belief in those things,” Flake said.

“It is also clear to me for the moment we have given in or given up on those core principles in favor of the more viscerally satisfying anger and resentment,” he said.

Flake has been a critic of Trump dating back to the 2016 campaign, and recently released a book — “Conscience of a Conservative” — that is critical of the president.

But the senator went even further in his floor speech, criticizing the example Trump is setting for America’s children, accusing him of railroading “civility and stability” and accusing Republicans of mistaking “reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior” for authenticity. 

“The notion that one should stay silent as the norms and values that keep America strong are undermined and as the alliances and agreements that ensure the stability of the entire world are routinely threatened by the level of thought that goes into 140 characters — the notion that one should say and do nothing in the face of such mercurial behavior is ahistoric and, I believe, profoundly misguided,” he said.

When Flake’s speech ended, several senators in the chamber gave him a standing ovation.

Flake’s comments were magnified in light of the criticism that Corker had unleashed on Trump just hours before.

Corker said Trump is “debasing” the country and is “not going to rise to the occasion as president,” a sentiment he expounded upon in multiple television interviews. 

Taken together, the condemnation from two Republican senators laid bare the deep divisions that are afflicting the GOP heading into the 2018 elections.

Flake’s retirement will have a significant impact on Senate Republicans as they struggle to coalesce around a tax-reform plan. But his decision also roils a key Senate race in 2018, opening the Republican field back up and potentially changing the calculus for Democrats. 

Angered by Flake’s criticism, Trump and his allies had been meeting with a handful of potential primary challengers to the senator. But only former state Sen. Kelli Ward took the plunge and entered the race.

Many Republicans saw Trump’s favorable tweets about Ward and a recent endorsement by Bannon as signals that Flake’s opponents should rally behind her.

But Flake’s decision to step aside could lead to more establishment-friendly figures getting in the race, as many of them would have been unlikely to challenge an incumbent. 

The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Senate Republican leadership, issued a statement declaring its opposition to Ward shortly after Flake made his announcement. 

“The one political upshot of Sen. Flake’s decision today is that Steve Bannon’s hand-picked candidate, conspiracy-theorist Kelli Ward, will not be the Republican nominee for this Senate seat in 2018,” said Steven Law, the super PAC’s president.

Republicans who could enter the race include former state GOP chairman Robert Graham, former Trump campaign chief operating officer and current Arizona state treasurer Jeff DeWitt, businesswoman Christine Jones, as well as a handful of Arizona lawmakers — Reps. Paul GosarPaul Anthony GosarHouse panel passes bill to boost drilling on federal land, offshore GOP Senate hopeful Kelli Ward leads challengers in internal poll GOP lawmaker spars with CNN reporter over Charlottesville conspiracy theories MORE, Martha McSally, Trent FranksHarold (Trent) Trent FranksHouse forges ahead with Dec. 22 spending bill Conservatives fear end-of-year ‘Christmas tree’ spending bill Adoption tax credit restored after conservative backlash MORE and David SchweikertDavid SchweikertThe Hill's Whip List: Where Republicans stand on tax-reform bill GOP Senate hopeful Kelli Ward leads challengers in internal poll Kelli Ward pursues Rand Paul’s endorsement in Arizona MORE

Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was recently pardoned by Trump for a criminal contempt conviction, also hasn’t ruled out running for the seat.

Ward, meanwhile, is expected to push forward with her campaign, saying she’s still the best option for voters who back Trump. 

No matter who jumps in the race, the lack of an incumbent could make the Republican-held seat more vulnerable than before, setting up a mammoth 2018 clash between the parties. 

Democrats had been eyeing the Arizona seat from the start of the election cycle, and are delighted by the prospect of the race becoming part of the GOP’s civil war. If they are to have any shot of winning the Senate next year, Arizona will need to turn blue.

But with Republicans only defending nine seats next year, compared to 23 for Democrats, the path to the majority remains difficult.

Lisa Hagen and Scott Wong contributed.