Republican Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, an outspoken critic within his party of President Donald Trump, announced Tuesday that he will not run for re-election in 2018 when his term ends.
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Flake made the announcement in an emotional address on the Senate floor, during which he took direct aim at the president, striking a tone of defiance and frustration with the current state of affairs in Washington.
“I rise today to say, enough,” the senator said. “We must dedicate ourselves to making sure that the anomalies never becomes the normal with respect and humility. I must say that we have fooled ourselves for long enough that a pivot to governing is right around the corner, a return to civility and stability right behind it.”
He added: “I will not be complicit or silent. I’ve decided to better represent the people of Arizona and to better serve my country and conscience by freeing myself of the political consideration that consumed far too much bandwidth and cause me to compromise too many principles.”
Flake went on to decry the “regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals,” pleading that his colleagues cast aside personal provocations and careerism in favor of the best interests of the country.
“The personal attacks, threats against principles, freedoms and institutions and flagrant disregard for decency and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have been elected to serve,” he said. “None of these appalling features of our current politics should ever be regarded as normal. We must never allow ourselves to lapse into thinking that is just the way things are now.”
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In his most stinging remarks directed at Trump, Flake criticized the president’s leadership — a characteristic upon which Trump chiefly campaigned last year — and bemoaned his unwillingness to recognize his shortcomings.
“When a leader recognizes new hurt and goes to look for someone to blame, there is perhaps nothing more devastating to a society,” Flake said. “Leadership knows that most often a good place to start in assigning blame is to look somewhat closer to home.”
In an interview with the Arizona Republic published shortly before his speech, the senator detailed his beliefs about a forthcoming campaign in which he already has a challenger from his right.
“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 newspaper. “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.”
The Trump-Flake relationship
Flake, Arizona’s junior senator, has shown a willingness to criticize Trump that stretches back to the 2016 presidential campaign and has continued during the president’s term in office.
The senator was one of the first Republicans to voice hesitancy about Trump after the businessman-turned-candidate captured the party’s presidential nomination, saying in July 2016 that he wanted “to support our nominee … but given some of the statements that have been made, [he was] finding it difficult.”
In August, Flake wrote in a book that the Republican Party has not done enough to keep the executive branch in check. The senator’s criticism included calling the administration “erratic” and he bemoaned his fellow Republicans for overlooking their responsibility to maintain a balance in the federal government the way they did when Democrat Barack Obama was in office.
“If I have been critical, it is not because I relish criticizing the behavior of the president of the United States,” Flake said Tuesday. “If I have been critical, it is because I believe it is my obligation to do so and as a matter of duty and conscience, the notion that one should stay silent and as the norms and values that keep America strong are undermined and as 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 we should say or do nothing in the face of such mercurial behavior is a historic and profoundly misguided.”
Over the summer, Trump tweeted his approval that Republican Kelli Ward announced a challenge to Flake in the state’s Senate primary. Trump had previously said in 2016 that he hoped Flake would lose his re-election bid, despite the fact that Flake was not on that year’s ballot.
At Tuesday’s White House press briefing, shortly after Flake’s speech, press secretary Sarah Sanders addressed the senator’s announcement in positive terms, saying that “based on the lack of support he has in Arizona, it’s probably a good move.”
What’s next in Arizona
With the incumbent Flake out of the running in 2018, Democrats will likely view the Arizona Senate seat as a prime pick-up opportunity.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has already endorsed Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, who announced her candidacy for the party’s nomination in late September. The congresswoman — who currently represents Arizona’s 9th congressional district east of Phoenix — sent a tweet with a link to a fundraising page shortly after Flake’s announcement, urging her supporters to “do everything we can to show that we are ready to win.”
Kelli Ward, the Republican recipient of Trump’s praise in August, is thus far the only candidate for the GOP nomination. Ward — who previously lost a primary challenge against Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in 2016 — issued a statement following Flake’s speech tying her campaign to the president.
“Arizona voters are the big winner in Jeff Flake’s decision to not seek re-election,” read the statement. “They deserve a strong conservative in the U.S. Senate who supports President Trump and the ‘America First’ agenda.”