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Know the West

Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake’s criticism of Trump wins him national prominence

His decision to sit out the GOP convention reflects his principles and the purpling of Arizona.


When asked whether he would attend the Republican Party Convention in Cleveland, Arizona, Sen. Jeff Flake told a reporter he would be mowing his lawn instead. Flake wasn’t alone in skipping his party’s biggest bash: His fellow Arizona Republican, Sen. John McCain, opted to campaign in northern Arizona. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who also faces reelection, chose to spend the week traveling by small plane and boat to communities along the Yukon River.

It’s not unheard of for senators to miss their party’s conventions, especially if they’re running for reelection and need the time to connect with constituents. But while the others have endorsed nominee Donald Trump, Flake has been an outspoken critic. A first-term senator who clearly has his eyes on the future, Flake’s principled disapproval of Trump’s positions on race and immigration have propelled him onto the national stage. They have also won him accolades back home in a state that surely faces a major political shift during what Flake, who is 53, clearly hopes will be a long political career. 

Sen. Jeff Flake by Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The senator declined to be interviewed by High Country News. But last week, in his second of two interviews on NPR this month, Flake recounted his heated interchange with Trump during a private meeting with Republican senators in the Capitol in early June.

Donald Trump pointed at me and said, ‘You've been very critical of me,’” Flake told NPR. And I said, ‘Yes I have.’ Flake rebuked Trump for saying that federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel was biased because of his Mexican heritage and for calling Mexicans rapists. “We can't hope to win the White House using language like that,” Flake said.

Flake warned that Trump could lose Arizona, long a red state. In fact, early polls show Trump and Hillary Clinton in a tight race.

Flake, a conservative Mormon who comes from a political family in Arizona, knows from personal experience that his state is no longer an easy win for Republicans. He was a veteran House representative when he ran for Senate in 2012, but his race grew closer as the election neared. He won by just 49 percent to 46 percent. Polling showed Latino voters vastly favored his Democratic opponent Richard Carmona.

Although all statewide elected officials currently are Republicans, the inexorable shifts in demographics underway in Arizona mean that the state will likely follow the pattern of Colorado and Nevada, which are solidly purple.

“The Latino population is the fastest-growing population in the state and in the not-too-distant future will eclipse the white population. The Republican Party needs to embrace and understand diversity to survive into the future,” says Fred Solop, a professor of politics at Northern Arizona University. “The demographics are changing; we will become a purple state.”

So perhaps it’s not surprising that Flake has been willing to take issue so publicly with his party’s nominee on race and immigration. He was one part of the bipartisan so-called “gang of eight,” which passed immigration reform in the Senate in 2013. The legislation went nowhere in the GOP-dominated House. He also sided with President Obama on normalizing relations with Cuba.

Flake supports Trump’s vice presidential pick, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, and hopes to be able to endorse Trump in the future, but not until he stops insulting people from diverse backgrounds.

“He cannot continue to call judges born in Indiana a Mexican in a pejorative way and expect to win independents and be in the White House,” Flake told KFYI Radio earlier this week.

Sen. Flake jokes on Twitter about being AWOL from GOP Convention.
“Somebody at this point has to push back and has to say this is not our party; our party does not espouse these kinds of sentiments and we don’t say these kinds of things or we will be relegated to second place in every election coming up,” he said.

Flake’s positions on Trump seem to stem from the senator’s deeply held values, not just political expediency. In December, after Trump advocated banning Muslims from entering the United States, Flake visited a mosque and denounced the anti-Muslim rhetoric of the campaign as “not in keeping with the values and ideals that have made this country the shining city on the hill that it is.”

Even Democrats in Arizona believe Flake’s critiques of Trump reflect the senator’s ethics and their own. For instance, Deb Gericke Mcleod from Chandler, Arizona, posted on Facebook that she nearly always opposes Flake’s politics, but “he deserves plenty of kudos for standing up to that vile, disgusting man and his syncopaths (sic). Finally there is a Republican who isn't afraid to say, ‘ENOUGH’ and then stand up for what is correct.”

Many Arizonans shared Flake’s outrage when Trump suggested that McCain was not a war hero; McCain never said much about the insults, but Flake did.

“Arizonans feel insulted and astounded that McCain just takes it and smiles,” says Bill Scheel, a 34-year-veteran of Arizona politics and a partner at Javelina, a campaign consultancy and public relations firm that largely works on Democratic issues. “Flake’s principled stand is very much in contrast to the disappointment people have in McCain for not standing up.”

But of course McCain, at 79, is nearing the end of his career. So Flake has a lot more incentive to make sure Trump’s rhetoric doesn’t hasten the purpling of Arizona.

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's DC Correspondent.