The White House has met with at least three actual or prospective primary challengers to Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake in recent weeks, a reflection of Donald Trump’s strained relations with the senator and the latest sign of the president’s willingness to play hardball with lawmakers who cross him — even Republican incumbents.
Flake, a longtime Trump critic who refused to endorse the president during the 2016 campaign, is one of a handful of undecided Republican votes on the Obamacare repeal effort. He’s also one of the most vulnerable Republicans up for reelection in 2018.
Since taking office, Trump has spoken with Arizona state Treasurer Jeff DeWit, a top official on his 2016 campaign, on at least two occasions, according to two sources familiar with the talks. More recently, since June, White House officials have also had discussions with former state Sen. Kelli Ward, who has announced her bid, and former Arizona GOP Chairman Robert Graham, who like DeWit is exploring a campaign.
At a Republican National Committee meeting outside of San Diego in May, David Bossie, Trump’s deputy campaign manager and the president of the influential conservative outside group Citizens United, told Graham that either he or DeWit would likely get substantial backing from conservatives should either enter the contest, according to three people familiar with the conversation.
“Maybe [Flake] should get back on the Trump team. A lot of people believe in Trump’s policies, said former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a prominent immigration hard-liner who backed Trump, noting that the president remained popular in Arizona. “There’s a silent majority that’s still there, and still in this state, so watch out.”
Graham, who has begun reviewing polling and purchasing campaign website addresses, was present at a meeting this spring of top GOP donors in Arizona that was also attended by Chris Bannon, White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s younger brother and a University of Arizona official. At the top of the agenda, according to three people familiar with the event, was a prospective Graham primary against Flake. During the meeting, which was also attended by Arizona Cardinals executive Michael Bidwill, several donors expressed mounting frustration with the incumbent.
Those familiar with the gathering stressed that Chris Bannon, who is widely viewed as a conduit to his powerful brother, was more of a listener than active participant and did not articulate his feelings about a Flake challenge.
Chris Bannon did not respond to a request for comment.
The bad blood between Trump and Flake dates back to the 2016 presidential race, when Flake was frequently critical of the president. In the waning days of the campaign, Trump became so angry with the Arizona senator that he proposed bankrolling a 2018 primary campaign against him. Backstage before a rally in the state, the president vented that he wanted to find a challenger to run against Flake and that he’d spend $10 million out of his own pocket to defeat him.
Trump is keeping close tabs on Flake’s fortunes back home. During a meeting with a small group of state Republican Party chairs in the Oval Office on Tuesday, he asked Arizona GOP Chairman Jonathan Lines for an update on the race. Lines responded by telling the president that the state party did not get involved in primaries, according to three people familiar with the exchange.
“The mutual dislike runs deep,” said Constantin Querard, a Republican strategist who oversaw Ted Cruz’s 2016 campaign in the state. “That both complicates [Flake’s] path to re-election by putting him at odds with much of the Arizona GOP, and it makes it very likely that if he gets a primary challenger that the Trump team likes, that challenger will be funded and supported in a way that makes beating Flake the most likely outcome.”
White House spokespersons did not return requests for on-the-record comment about the president’s relationship with Flake.
A Flake spokesman, Joshua Daniels, declined to comment on the senator’s conversations with the administration but noted that he had “voted with President Trump over 95 percent of the time this year” and had aggressively backed several White House priorities, including the successful push to confirm Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.
White House officials deny they are actively recruiting a challenger or that any decision has been made to target Flake. Within the highest levels of the administration, there is hesitancy to antagonize the senator, whose support is needed as the president struggles to push his ambitious agenda through Congress. There is also some skepticism that Flake, who has spent over 15 years in elected office and hails from a prominent Arizona political family, can be defeated in a primary.
An administration-backed primary challenge to Flake would also further inflame tensions with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who over the last several weeks has had several run-ins with the White House over political planning. McConnell, who is fiercely protective of GOP incumbents and has vowed to protect those facing primaries, recently became enraged when a Trump-sanctioned outside group launched an advertising blitz targeting Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, who was also critical of the president during the 2016 campaign, over his refusal to back the Obamacare repeal plan.
Even so, there has been ongoing talk at the White House about how a prospective race would play out. Among the questions raised, according to two people who have discussed the matter with the administration directly, surrounds the candidacy of Ward, a brash conservative who was crushed by McCain in a 2016 primary. A well-known figure in the state, she could siphon support from DeWit or Graham, both of whom are regarded as more viable candidates.
The deliberations underscore the administration’s disdain for Flake. Months before the election, the senator said he wouldn’t endorse Trump, urged other Republicans to do the same, and declared that he wouldn’t be attending the GOP convention because he had to mow his lawn.
After the October emergence of the Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump was heard bragging about sexually assaulting women, Flake called on him to withdraw from the race and said he might write in independent candidate Evan McMullin, a leader of the 2016 Never Trump movement. More recently, Flake said the president lacked an “acceptable rationale” for firing FBI Director James Comey — a tweak that angered the president’s team.
In a state filled with conservative voters who flocked to Trump’s anti-immigration views and promise to build a wall on the southern border, Flake’s attacks stood out. Trump won Arizona’s GOP primary by more than 20 percentage points before carrying the state in the general election.
Among the president’s most vocal supporters, the feeling of betrayal is particularly intense.
“He’s the president, so we should stick by him, especially on the Republican side,” said Arpaio, noting that Flake was one of a small group of senators who had vocally opposed Trump.
Yet the complaints about Flake extend to other perceived apostasies, including his 2016 push to pass a bipartisan gun control bill, his openness to negotiate with former President Barack Obama over a nuclear pact with Iran, and his push to lift the U.S. embargo on travel to Cuba. While his supporters praise him as an independent-minded lawmaker who charts his own path, Flake’s detractors deride him as a grandstander — one all too willing to poke his party in the eye.
Many of those in the state who provided Trump with financial backing in 2016 have begun talking up the possibility of finding a primary challenger, with DeWit and Graham among those most frequently mentioned. Others hold out hope that GOP Rep. Martha McSally, a rising star, or former Gov. Jan Brewer, a vigorous Trump backer, will enter the race.
Don Shooter, a state legislator and an outspoken backer of the president, predicted that a Flake challenger would immediately be able to raise between $10 million and $15 million from donors eager to see the incumbent unseated. “They’re motivated to take Jeff Flake out,” he said.
Among those Flake has rankled: Paradise Valley philanthropist Don Tapia, one of the most sought-after Republican donors in the state, who donated over $100,000 to pro-Trump causes in 2016 and also helped to bankroll his inauguration. Tapia was a benefactor of Flake’s 2012 Senate run but, according to multiple Arizona Republicans, has recently spoken of backing someone else in next year’s primary. (Tapia did not respond to a request for comment.)
"He ran into a big storm coming out against Trump,” Ed Robson, an Arizona real estate developer and major GOP donor who contributed to a pro-Trump super PAC, said of the senator. “This being a big Trump area, he probably made a mistake doing that."