PHOENIX — Calling the president’s behavior “dangerous to democracy,” Sen. Jeff Flake announced Tuesday he won’t seek another term.
In a speech on the Senate floor, the state’s junior senator decried what he said has been “the indecency of our discourse” and “the coarseness of our leadership.” He also spoke of “the flagrant disregard for truth and decency” and his belief that the nation’s values — and even the stability of the entire world — “are routinely threatened by the level of thought that goes into 140 characters,” a blatant reference to Trump’s tendency to make pronouncements on his Twitter account.
And he chided members of his own Republican Party for standing silent in the name of party loyalty or fear of drawing a primary challenge.
“Politics can make us silent when we should speak,” he said.
“And silence can equal complicity,” Flake continued. “I will not be complicit or silent.”
Flake, in the 17-minute floor speech, conceded there was a political basis behind his decision.
He said that the current climate in the GOP makes it impossible for “a true conservative” to win a nomination. And polls already have shown him running behind former state Sen. Kelli Ward, who has aligned herself with the president and effectively received his endorsement.
“Arizona voters are the big winner in Jeff Flake’s decision to not seek reelection,” Ward said in a prepared statement. “They deserve a strong conservative in the U.S. Senate who supports President Trump and the ‘America First’ agenda.”
But his withdrawal from the race could decrease the chances that Ward will end up the nominee. Other Republicans, sensing Flake’s vulnerability even before Tuesday’s announcement were already testing the waters before Flake’s announcement.
One of those is Jay Heiler, who served as chief of staff in the 1990s to Republican Gov. Fife Symington. He now serves on the Arizona Board of Regents.
Heiler starts out with something that could help him defeat Ward: the endorsement of former Gov. Jan Brewer, who has been -- and remains -- one of Trump’s key supporters. That sends the signal to those who back Trump that Heiler would be acceptable.
“He’s a breath of fresh air,” said Brewer, who already was supporting Heiler to run even before Tuesday’s announcement. “I think he can get the job done and represent Arizona in a fashion that it should be represented.”
Other potential candidates include state Treasurer Jeff DeWit, former state GOP Chairman Robert Graham and two current congressional Republicans: David Schweikert and Martha McSally. The winner would likely take on Democrat Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema who joined the race earlier this month.
Flake said his decision to free himself from having to worry about winning what would have been a brutal primary gives him a chance to focus on other issues in his remaining 14 months.
Potentially more significant, it frees him up to take a much more high-profile role in speaking out against the president and the politics of fear he believes Trump represents.
“We have given in or given up on the core principles in favor of a more viscerally satisfied anger and resentment,” the senator said in his floor speech.
“To be clear, the anger and resentment that the people feel at the royal mess that we’ve created are justified,” he continued. “But anger and resentment are not a governing philosophy.”
And he had a special message for GOP colleagues about “the impulse to scapegoat and belittle.”
“In the case of the Republican Party, those things also threaten to turn us into a fearful, backward-looking minority party,” Flake warned.
In his speech, the senator never actually mentioned the president by name. But he made it clear about whom he was talking.
“Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified,” he said.
“And when such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is something else,” Flake continued. “It is dangerous to democracy.”
More to the point, he said it’s important to speak out, particularly as a member of the president’s own party.
“I’m aware that there’s a segment of my party that believes that anything short of complete and unquestioning loyalty to a president who belongs to my party is unacceptable and suspect,” Flake told his colleges. And he said it’s not because he enjoys criticizing the behavior of the president.
“If I have been critical, it is because I believe it is my obligation to do so,” Flake said.
The senator’s announcement drew the usual -- and expected -- statements of praise for his service. But none of the Republicans were willing to respond to Flake’s comments about the party’s silent acquiescence to Trump and his policies and practices.
For example, Gov. Doug Ducey issued a statement praising Flake as “a voice for fiscal responsibility at the federal level before it was popular.” But gubernatorial press aide Daniel Scarpinato said he did not know whether his boss had seen, heard or read comments -- and whether Ducey agrees with anything Flake said.
State GOP Chairman Jonathan Lines called Flake “a tried and true Arizonan who has served our state honorably for more than 18 years,” first as a member of House of Representatives before being elected to the Senate in 2012. But party spokeswoman Torunn Sinclair said there would be no response to the actual content of the senator’s speech
Ditto Arizona Chamber of Commerce President Glenn Hamer, who had similar praise.
There was no immediate comment from Sinema who just recently jumped into the race. But Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said Arizonans should not elect “another rubber-stamp Republican for Donald Trump’s reckless right-wing policies that hurt working families.”
An open seat in the Senate could give Democrats the first chance in decades to put an Arizonan in the U.S. Senate.
The last time that happened was in 1976 when a divisive GOP primary between Sam Steiger and John Conlan, both members of Congress, left so much bad blood that Democrat Dennis DeConcini from Tucson snatched the seat in the general election with 54 percent of the vote.
In publicly lashing out at Trump, Flake finds himself even closer aligned with John McCain, the state’s senior senator, who, with a diagnosis of brain cancer, has been taking more pronounced stances against the president. Just a week ago that took the form of a speech denouncing the administration’s “half-baked spurious nationalism” and the use of “scapegoats” to deal with problem rather than working toward solutions.