It’s rather amusing to see many media commentators and so-called political analysts predicting that Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, retiring hurts the Republicans. Before the senator decided not to seek a second term, the common analysis was: Republicans likely to lose if he runs … which, was correct.
Yet, Flake deciding regretfully to leave elective politics complete with a lecture from the Senate floor rather astonishingly yields the same analytical electoral conclusion: a bad development for Republicans.
In actuality, Flake deciding to retire helps his party. Today, the Republican chances of holding the Arizona Senate seat, in what is still at least a nominally Republican state, are better than the day before Flake bowed out.
With polling numbers that were showing his approval rating even lower among Republican voters than with the Grand Canyon State electorate as a whole, it was reasonable to conclude that Flake, despite his incumbency, was a clear underdog to former state Sen. Kelli Ward. She is the same Republican candidate who held Sen. John McCain to a 51 percent to 40 percent victory in the 2016 Arizona GOP primary.
Arizonans don’t nominate their candidates until August 28, so it is certainly possible that Flake could have reversed his fortunes during that long interval, but not if he continued refusing to spin his way out of the personal feud in which he and President Trump have engaged since well before the latter man even claimed the national Republican nomination. Repeatedly accosting Trump has now cost Flake his political career, but the Arizona GOP is back in business.
The common political wisdom is that Republicans are now doomed because they will nominate Ward by default. Despite her relatively strong electoral performance against McCain and her robust polling standing opposite Flake, Ward is far from an ideal candidate. It’s clear many Arizona Republicans were supporting her in the polling booth and through political surveys not necessarily because they like, or even know much about her; rather, they were voicing objection to their current Senate incumbents.
Standing against other more credible candidates, irrespective of ideological viewpoints, most likely results in the Republican rank-and-file sending someone other than Ward to the general election.
We are likely to see several candidates now step forward, the best of whom is two-term U.S. Rep. Martha McSally from Tucson. McSally defeated a sitting Democratic incumbent, Ron Barber, who was an unfortunate victim of the senseless 2011 shooting attack against then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. McSally defeated Barber by just 161 votes in 2014, the closest congressional election in the entire country that year. She returned to run a strong re-election campaign, spending more than $7.7 million and won with 57 percent in a marginal political district on the same day that Hillary Clinton was winning it by almost five points.
Holding more than $1.45 million in her current campaign treasury, McSally can transfer every dollar to a new Senate campaign. A former Air Force pilot with combat experience, including becoming the first female to fly a combat mission and command a flight squadron, the congresswoman’s military record will go a long way to boost her position for a statewide election.
In the general election, McSally would be a positive contrast to Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, who before the Flake announcement was positioning herself as a consensus Democratic candidate. Now that the seat is open, some are suggesting a more liberal candidate might better suit the primary constituency.
In McSally, a conservative House member who has won two tough campaigns with a national fundraising network, the Republican leaders would have a prototype candidate for whom to wish to have in every state.
While Sen. Jeff Flake made his statement and sentiments known to the nation, he will soon be on the back burner of American politics. Ironically, leaving to save himself the embarrassment of losing has given the party he leaves behind a better chance of holding the crucial Senate seat.
With the primary still months away, it is impossible to predict how this one state’s election will ultimately unfold, but we do know Republican chances of winning here, and holding the Senate majority, have now greatly improved thanks to Sen. Flake’s departure.