Arizona’s already very complicated Senate race, explained

By Matthew Yglesias

Martha McSally hops into a crowded field.

On Friday, Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ), the first woman combat pilot in American history, will make a grand entrance into the race for Arizona’s open Senate seat in 2018 by flying a vintage World War II plane over the state.

A conventional conservative Republican with a few years of meaningful political experience under her belt and a great personal story, McSally is the ideal candidate to help the GOP hold on to an open seat from a retiring Republican in a state that Donald Trump won by 3.5 points. It should be an easy win; Democrats have only carried Arizona once since Harry Truman’s reelection. But while McSally’s flashy announcement will be hard to beat, her path to the Senate is surprisingly perilous.

The problem is Donald Trump — and not just in the sense that an unpopular incumbent president creates a less favorable political environment for basically every Republican running for anything anywhere.

Trump is at the center of tensions sweeping through the Arizona Republican Party — tensions that have led to both of the state’s current senators strongly criticizing the president. Tensions that explain why the seat is open at all, and that threaten to derail McSally’s effort to even secure the nomination. Tensions that have brought forth a strong Democratic challenger, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, a fascinating figure in her own right, on whose shoulders Democrats’ slender but real chances of retaking the Senate majority rest.

There’s more. Arizona’s incumbent Republican governor also looks vulnerable in 2018. And the state’s not-at-all-vulnerable senior senator, John McCain, one of the truly pivotal figures of Trump’s first year in office, was diagnosed last year with a severe form of brain cancer, raising the prospect of two open Senate seats in the state this fall.

Welcome to Arizona, the state that’s at the fulcrum of almost everything happening in American politics right now.

Jeff Flake took on Trump and lost

The current sequence of events was set in motion, roughly speaking, when Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) decided to take the unusual measure of standing by his election-year criticisms of Trump even after Trump won. Last fall, for example, he told the mayor of Mesa, Arizona, that if the GOP becomes “the party of Roy Moore and Donald Trump, we are toast.”

It was common during 2016 for Republican senators to be sharply critical of Trump — Marco Rubio (R-FL) called him a “con artist,” and Ted Cruz (R-TX) called him “totally amoral,” while according to Lindsey Graham (R-SC), “if we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed […] and we will deserve it.”

Some Republicans, like Rubio and Cruz, ultimately came around and endorsed Trump over Hillary Clinton in the general election, but others, like Graham, joined Flake in refusing to endorse either Clinton or Trump. Flake and Graham weren’t alone. Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Cory Gardner (R-CO), Dean Heller (R-NV), Mike Lee (R-UT), Rob Portman (R-OH), Ben Sasse (R-NE), and McCain all refused to endorse Trump as well.

When Trump unexpectedly won the election, these Republican skeptics overwhelmingly swallowed their once-profound doubts and got on the Trump train.

Flake, however, persisted with his criticisms and published a book titled Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle, which David Brooks called “a thoughtful defense of traditional conservatism and a thorough assault on the way Donald Trump is betraying it.” Had Trump lost, a book like that would have been part of the inevitable intraparty recriminations game. The title was a deliberate echo of former Sen. Barry Goldwater — attempting to position Flake’s version of politics as the authentic one.

But Trump won, and Flake ended up somewhat marooned. His criticisms of Trump didn’t come from a standpoint of ideological moderation but rather from a stance that Trump is personally intemperate and insufficiently devoted to the pure gospel of free markets, so Flake didn’t join with Democrats to block any noteworthy Republican legislation or significantly obstruct Trump’s nominees. (Flake did block the appointment of an agricultural negotiator to the US Trade Representative’s office, but that didn’t happen until November, after he’d announced his retirement.)

Flake simply alienated Trump, the Trumpist media, and the leadership of his own party. His approval ratings cratered, making his Senate seat vulnerable. Some polls showed him not only very likely to lose to Sinema but also extremely likely to lose a primary challenge to Kelli Ward, a kooky far-right conservative character whom everyone views as a weak choice for Republicans.

So Flake looked at his political future, did the GOP a favor, and announced on October 24 that he wouldn’t run for reelection.

Kelli Ward stepped up for the Trump wing of the GOP

Ward, a former state legislator, challenged McCain in a 2016 primary that was viewed as deeply unwelcome by the Republican establishment. She ended up in legal hot water for reusing a Mitt Romney attack ad from the 2008 primary, rallied behind the Bundy family and chemtrail conspiracy theorists, and defines herself as a hardliner on immigration who believes in “building the wall and stopping illegal immigration,” in contrast to Flake, who she says “believes in open borders and amnesty.”

Ward’s widely rumored run against Flake was welcomed by Trump, but not by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Senate Republican leadership wants to protect its incumbent members and recruit electable, leadership-friendly candidates to ensure its majority. Ward was not that type of candidate.

Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake Jeff Flake, who is WEAK on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate. He’s toxic!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2017

Flake choosing to step down was, thus, a godsend for McConnell, who was now in position to recruit McSally, a popular Congress member in the state, for the race rather than be stuck with a choice between Flake and Ward.

But McSally was unexpectedly slow to …read more

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