Jeff Flake 2020? He Seems Open To The Idea.

It would be a rather quixotic effort, but Jeff Flake isn't ruling out challenging the President for the Republican nomination in 2020.

Retiring Arizona Senator Jeff Flake isn’t ruling out the idea of running for the Republican nomination in 2020 against President Trump:

Jeff Flake said Friday that a Republican needs to challenge Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination in 2020. And it might be him.

Flake gave at least some credence to the widespread speculation that he might mount a quixotic primary campaign against Trump, given the retiring senator’s public fretting about the state of the party. The Arizona GOP senator, who has visited New Hampshire recently, is decidedly keeping his name out there.

“I’ve not ruled it out. I’ve not ruled it in. Just, somebody needs to run on the Republican side,” Flake said on Friday in a lengthy conversation with POLITICO and The Hill on Friday. Flake said both outgoing Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Nebraska GOP Sen. Ben Sasse could give Trump a credible challenge.

Flake insisted that Trump’s popularity in the party is ruining the GOP’s long-term viability and predicted only a brutal electoral loss could make that clear.

“I hope somebody does [run], just to remind Republicans what it means to be conservative and what it means to be decent. We’ve got to bring that back,” Flake said. “You can whip up the base for a cycle or two but it wears thin. Anger and resentment are not a governing philosophy.”

Flake was willing to rule one thing: A return to the Senate in the near future. There’s an open Senate seat up for grabs in Arizona in 2020, but the first-term senator made clear it’s not for him. “That’s not in the cards, dude … but I’m not swearing off politics,” he said.

Indeed, the soft-spoken but attention-seeking Republican is eyeing a brutal legislative battle with Trump before he retires, planning to push legislation to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The odds are long: Majority Leader Mitch McConnell thinks the proposal is unnecessary even after Attorney General Jeff Sessions was pushed out. And it’s easy enough for Republicans to shut down Flake’s demands for a vote, unless he and his Democratic allies insist that his plan is included in spending legislation.

Still, Trump is taking notice, attacking Flake on Twitter Friday for pressing forward with the Mueller bill.

“Jeff Flake(y) doesn’t want to protect the Non-Senate confirmed Special Counsel, he wants to protect his future after being unelectable in Arizona for the ‘crime’ of doing a terrible job! A weak and ineffective guy!” Trump said.

On Wednesday, the president also took credit for pushing Flake out of office. After releasing a book excoriating Trump, Flake announced last year he would not run for reelection.

So on the issue of his own political viability, Flake said Trump had a point.

“In a sense, he did. The price to win a Republican primary was to stand on a stage with the president over and over while he insults minorities and ridicules both Republicans and Democrats and Americans,” Flake said. “I couldn’t do that. So, in a sense, yeah. I’ll give him credit.”

More from The Hill:

Retiring GOP Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) on Friday said he wouldn’t rule out making a primary challenge to President Trump in 2020, emphasizing that someone in the party needs to run against him.

“I’ve not ruled it out. I’ve not ruled it in. Just, somebody needs to run,” Flake told reporters on Friday.

Asked who else within the party should be in the “conversation” about a primary challenge to the president, Flake pointed to Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Ben Sasse(Neb.), a sometimes Trump critic within the GOP caucus who Flake described as a “strong candidate” if he decided to run.

“But I hope somebody does just remind people what it means to be conservative and what it means to be decent, we’ve got to bring that back,” Flake said. “If we’re going to be a relevant party in the future then we’ve got to be a decent party.”

“This politics of grievance and anger and resentment, you know, you can whip up the base for a cycle or two but it wears thin,” he added. “Anger and resentment are not a governing philosophy.”

Flake is one of a handful of Republican officials who have earned speculation as a potential 2020 challenger to Trump. He’s previously called for a member of the party to challenge the president and hasn’t shutdown questions about a 2020 bid of his own.

While Republicans picked up seats in the Senate during Tuesday’s midterm election, they also faced a revolt from female, suburban voters who they need if they want to regain a majority in the House and likely to hold onto the White House in 2020.

When asked if the party could flip back congressional seats without making changes, Flake responded: “No, we cant. I’m one who still holds to that autopsy that we did back in ’12. …You can’t fight demographics and you’ve got to appeal to a broader electorate.”

Whether Trump can win reelection, Flake said, depends on if Republicans primary the president, as well as who Democrats nominate — a progressive or an individual more to the center of the party.

This isn’t the first time that Flake’s name has emerged as a potential challenger to the President for the Republican nomination in two years. Ever since Flake announced last year that he was not running for re-election, and later released a book that was sharply critical of the President on a number of grounds, many pundits have suggested that he was maneuvering himself into position for a challenge to Trump and a rallying point for those remaining Republicans who have remained in the party but who don’t necessarily support the President, a number that could see itself increase in the wake of the losses that the party suffered in the just-concluded midterm elections. In his book, Flake was even more critical of the President than he has been in public, and this resulted in the President and many of his supporters unleashing a war of words on Flake that continued through the midterm elections. Flake also played a prominent role during the confirmation hearings for Justice Brett Kavanaugh when he joined with Senators Lisa Murkowski and Joe Manchin to force a delay in the final vote on the Senate floor to allow the F.B.I. to reopen Kavanaugh’s investigation to include a look at the allegations made by Christine Blasey Ford and other women. That investigation, of course, was inconclusive and Flake ended up voting in favor of Kavanaugh on the Senate floor. Indeed, as many on the left have pointed out, notwithstanding his rhetoric Flake continued to vote with his party, and the President on the Senate floor, although given the fact that Flake still considers himself to be a conservative it’s unclear what they expected him to do.

Realistically speaking, it’s worth noting that primary challenges to incumbent Presidents have not exactly been successful in the modern era. The most recent such challenge that was in the least bit credible was in 1992 when Pat Buchanan challenged George H.W. Bush from the right, and before that the most notable have occurred in 1980 when Ted Kennedy challenged Jimmy Carter, in 1976 when Ronald Reagan challenged Gerald Ford, and in 1968 when Eugene McCarthy mounted a stronger-than-expected upstart campaign to challenge Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War. While that last challenge did result in LBJ eventually deciding not to run for re-election, it’s fair to say that none of these challenges was successful in that none of them led to the primary challenger actually defeating the incumbent President’s bid for renomination. Indeed, in the modern primary era, there has yet to be an election where this has been the case. Reagan came close in 1976, and Kennedy came out of his 1980 fight with Carter as the undisputed leader of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, a role he continued to play throughout the Reagan Administration. But none of these challengers won, and the most that they have done is to weaken the incumbent and make it harder for them to win re-election.

At the same time, it’s worth noting that while unseating an incumbent President is not an easy task, the extent to which an incumbent has faced a challenge from within his own party has seemed to play a significant role in what happens in the General Election. In the past fifty years, for example, incumbents have stood for re-election eight times and have lost that bid on only three occasions, Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992. If you add Lyndon Johnson, who declined to stand for re-election after a narrower than expected victory over Senator Eugene McCarthy in the 1968 New Hampshire primary, then that makes it four times out of nine bids for re-election. Looking back to the beginning of the 20th Century, there was only one President defeated for re-election over a period lasting from 1900 to 1968, and that was Herbert Hoover who was standing for re-election during the height of the Great Depression. Clearly, the evidence suggests that odds of unseating an incumbent rather long at best. Perhaps Trump will be the exception that will prove the rule and become the first incumbent defeated in a re-election bid since 1992, or even the first incumbent defeated in the race for his party’s nomination in the modern law, but even if his poll numbers stay where they are it’s far too early to make any prognostications about that.

That being said, given the situation in the White House and the recent Republican losses at the ballot box, speculation about Flake or a candidate like him challenging the President in two years time is likely to increase over the coming months. In addition the retiring Arizona Senator, another potential challenger is outgoing Ohio Governor John Kasich, who was the last man standing against Trump in 2016 and who has been traveling to New Hampshire and other early primary states quite frequently in recent months. Like Flake, Kasich has been coy about his 2020 plans, but he clearly intends to remain a strong critic of the President once he leaves office and has positioned himself as a moderate conservative alternative to an increasingly unhinged President. In addition to Flake and Kasich, Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, who has been a frequent and outspoken critic of the Presidents, has been mentioned as a potential challenger, although Sasse has downplayed those rumors. Finally, Tennessee Senator Bob Corker who, like Flake, is retiring at the end of the year, is not ruling out running for the Republican nomination in 2020. Whether all of this amounts to anything in two years time is another question.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, Donald Trump, Politicians, US Politics, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. MarkedMan says:

    If Flake runs he will be the Bob Dole of 2020. A creature of the conventional wing of the Republican establishment* who doesn’t really stand for anything or generates any real passion. But if he weakens Trump I’m all for it.

    *Okay, I admit this isn’t quite right since in Dole’s time the conventional wing were the power brokers and now they are pathetic. The Republican Party is Trump’s Party through and through.**

    **On the third hand, being Trumpers they no doubt will emulate their leader and turn on him in a heartbeat once they smell weakness.

  2. Stormy Dragon says:

    Flake 2020: “He’s deeply concerned”

    15
  3. Kathy says:

    But none of these challengers won, and the most that they have done is to weaken the incumbent and make it harder for them to win re-election.

    Against Trump, this qualifies as success.

    But let’s be careful. It may be that weak or vulnerable presidents draw in-party challenges. Carter was seen as weak, he was not a good leader, and he had a recession and a mess involving oil. Ford was quite unpopular for pardoning Nixon. Bush might be the exception, but there was GOP fatigue after three straight terms of Republican presidents, plus the mild recession in his last year.

    In other words, the challenge within the party may be a symptom of an incumbent going down, rather than the cause.

    Lastly, the challengers tend to be further right or left than the incumbent. Though that’s a hard conclusion to draw from such a tiny sample.

  4. Kathy says:

    @MarkedMan:

    **On the third hand,

    In the future, try saying “on the gripping hand…” 🙂

  5. Moosebreath says:

    “Looking back to the beginning of the 20th Century, there was only one President defeated for re-election over a period lasting from 1900 to 1968, and that was Herbert Hoover who was standing for re-election during the height of the Great Depression.”

    Taft in 1912 as well, though he is another example of being challenged by a member of one’s own party (Teddy Roosevelt running as a Bull Moose, with antlers on his forehead and a big stick in his hand, to quote a campaign jingle).

  6. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    This guy will forever be tarred with his m.o. of talking tough, and then folding like a cheap piece of lawn furniture.
    I will say right here, right now, that Dennison will not run again, so jumping into the field early may be smart.

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Kathy: Thanx for the Motie reference. 😉

  8. wr says:

    “If elected, I promise to lecture all Americans on the right way to proceed to bring us back together as a country and fulfill the promise to all citizens, and then sign legislation that will do the opposite of everything I’ve said and then be very sad about what has come into law. Remember, when someone shows you who he is, believe him!”

    11
  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Indeed, as many on the left have pointed out, notwithstanding his rhetoric Flake continued to vote with his party, and the President on the Senate floor, although given the fact that Flake still considers himself to be a conservative it’s unclear what they expected him to do.

    Some of us had hoped he would vote as a conservative, tho we fully expected him to vote as a coward.

    As far as trump winning re-election, I would like to hear a theory as to why he, a president unlike any we have had in a very long time if ever, should be able to follow the precedent set by all those previous more “normal” presidents. His election was a triumph of ill fortune due in large part to a confluence of circumstances he had absolutely nothing to with allowing him to thread a most unlikely electoral college needle that he will never be able to repeat. Since his election he has done not a damn thing to broaden his base and everything possible to harden the partisan lines against him.

    I would really like to see how any one thinks he can add up the electoral college math a second time.

  10. Kathy says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Thanks for noticing.

  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Kathy: I’m a big fan of Known Space, how could I not?

  12. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Well, if he’s the same kind of candidate as he was a senator, he’ll talk a big game, get a lot of media attention – and then vote the way Trump wants anyway.

  13. MarkedMan says:

    @Kathy: In 2018, I am willing to bet more people use that expression not knowing where it came from, then have ever read the book…

  14. MarkedMan says:

    although given the fact that Flake still considers himself to be a conservative it’s unclear what they expected him to do

    Although I agree that I didn’t expect him to vote differently than in the past, he could have used his majority of 1 vote to force other issues, like protecting Mueller, or revealing Trumps tax returns. In the end, he wanted to preserve his ability to run for President so he blathered but didn’t do anything that mattered.

    And please don’t call him a “conservative”. He’s a Republican, though and through.

  15. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    Jeff Flake is the Evan Bayh of the GOP.

  16. charon says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    I will say right here, right now, that Dennison will not run again, so jumping into the field early may be smart.

    Whether Trump runs for reelection is entirely contingent on his expectation – does he think he would win. He won’t run if he thinks he would lose.

    His expectations appear to be unrealistic, as his recent behavior has shown, and he seems genuinely surprised and shocked that control of the HOR flipped.

    A lot can happen in the coming months, too many variables for my cloudy crystal ball.

  17. Kylopod says:

    @Kathy:

    Bush might be the exception, but there was GOP fatigue after three straight terms of Republican presidents, plus the mild recession in his last year.

    The main attack on Bush from his own party was his going back on his “no new taxes” pledge.

  18. Kathy says:

    @MarkedMan:

    “Elementary, my dear Watson.”

    Note: I’ve never read a Sherlock Holmes novel or story, but I’m told this phrase never appears in any of them.

  19. Michael Reynolds says:

    Poor Jeff, the silly twat still thinks there’s such a thing as a principled conservative. There never was outside of a few think tanks and some editorial pages. Republicans are a white supremacist party. They have been since 1968. All that’s changed is that they stopped whispering and started shouting their hate and fear of the other.

  20. Kylopod says:

    @Kathy: I think the quote originated in one of the movies.

    Fun fact: Of the original Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, Moriarty and Irene Adler only appear in one Holmes story a piece. They became much more prominent parts of the Holmes mythology in post-Doyle works.

  21. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    If he intends to go back to dog-whistles and otherwise business as usual, the Cheeto base won’t have it, and any principled conservatives know it won’t play.

  22. MarkedMan says:

    @Kathy: I’ve seen a whole list of these. Rhett Butler never says “Frankly Scarlett, I don’t give a d*mn”, Rick Blain never said “Play it again, Sam” and James Cagney never said, “So you’re the dirty rat that killed my brother!”

  23. Teve says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    I will say right here, right now, that Dennison will not run again, so jumping into the field early may be smart.

    I have conflicted thoughts about this:

    1) All he does is fuck around and watch tv and get press attention so he’s not going anywhere.
    2) he’s terrified of being exposed via his tax returns by the House dems and may try to negotiate a resignation in exchange for cancelled investigations.
    3) Mueller likely has multiple smoking guns re corruption, russia, trump’s debt, which Trump won’t be able to survive.
    4) He hates admitting failure and a sizeable chunk of the population consists of chumps who buy whatever stupid lie he want to tell this minute, and he’s abetted by Fox State News, so he’ll never have to leave.

    how it all sorts out I haven’t a clue.

  24. Teve says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    As far as trump winning re-election, I would like to hear a theory as to why he, a president unlike any we have had in a very long time if ever, should be able to follow the precedent set by all those previous more “normal” presidents. His election was a triumph of ill fortune due in large part to a confluence of circumstances he had absolutely nothing to with allowing him to thread a most unlikely electoral college needle that he will never be able to repeat. Since his election he has done not a damn thing to broaden his base and everything possible to harden the partisan lines against him.

    I would really like to see how any one thinks he can add up the electoral college math a second time.

    A recession in the next 2 years is probly 75% likely. It’s been a really abnormal amount of time since the last one. That could finish him off. On the other hand Bush lost the popular vote the first time, but then got us in wars, and won the popular vote in 2004. So maybe Trump’s going to invade Iran next year?

  25. Kylopod says:

    @MarkedMan: On TV Tropes, the official name for this phenomenon is “Beam Me Up, Scotty.”

    https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BeamMeUpScotty

  26. Teve says:

    @Kylopod: They didn’t like that, but I would suggest the recession from July 1990-Mar 1991 is probly what did GHW Bush in.

  27. Teve says:

    @Kathy: I’ve had multiple complete collections and it’s true, A. C. Doyle never used it. P.G. Woodehouse used it in a story, I believe is where it came from.

  28. Teve says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Yeah I’m glad Trump came along, in a grim sort of way, because he’s the apotheosis of Republicanism: a born-wealthy crook using racism and bigotry to get uneducated white religious hicks to vote themselves poorer.

  29. Kylopod says:

    @Teve:

    They didn’t like that, but I would suggest the recession from July 1990-Mar 1991 is probly what did GHW Bush in.

    Agreed. I wasn’t referring to what did him in, I was referring to why he received a primary challenge.

    Of course there’s always a chicken-and-egg aspect to primary challenges to sitting presidents. I suspect that if the economy had been booming in 1992, the GOP would have given him a pass on his tax heresy.

  30. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Teve:

    So maybe Trump’s going to invade Iran next year?

    If he did I foresee massive protests from both the left and more than few of the right demanding his head. I think there is a significant faction on the right who know he is lying and are just choosing to ignore it as long as it doesn’t get anybody killed. They won’t be any too happy when their sons and daughters are being put in harms way on the basis of a blatant fabrication.

    A significant number of people didn’t think Bush/Cheney and Co. would lie us into a war. They now know there were more than a few lies being bandied about to bolster the very weak case for the invasion of Iraq. trump won’t get even a hint of a benefit of a doubt.

  31. Teve says:

    @Kylopod: I live in the Deep South and people here would vote for tax cuts under any circumstances. They do a cost-benefit analysis without the benefit part. It’s really stupid. Then politicians are forced to use indirect fees and speeding tickets etc to make up the shortfalls, and the same people complain about those.

  32. Kathy says:

    @MarkedMan:

    For the record:

    Vader: Obi Wan never told you what happened to your father.
    Luke: He told me enough! [pause] He told me you killed him!
    Vader: No. I am your father.

  33. Sleeping Dog says:

    If Flake, a great name for a diffident conservative, wants to damage Tiny, he shouldn’t in the primary but run as an independent in the general election. Possibly he can peel off enough Repug voters who won’t vote for a Dem to hurt him.

  34. Kylopod says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    Possibly he can peel off enough Repug voters who won’t vote for a Dem to hurt him.

    Be careful what you wish for. The history of Republican-leaning independents does not clearly support the intuitive assumption that they would be more of a problem for Republicans. One of the most pervasive myths in American political history is the belief that Ross Perot cost George H.W. Bush the 1992 election. Exit polls indicated that Perot voters were split equally on whether they preferred Bush or Clinton as their second choice. In 1980, exit polls showed more John Anderson voters preferring Carter to Reagan (though Reagan’s margin over Carter was far too big for it to have made a difference).

    Then there’s Gary Johnson in 2016. This is something everyone gets wrong (including me at first). You don’t know how many pundits I’ve seen just assume Johnson acted as some kind of counterweight to Jill Stein in neutralizing the spoiler effect she had on Hillary by siphoning off potential Trump votes.

    In fact, exit polls indicated not only that more Johnson voters preferred Clinton to Trump, but that the numbers were virtually identical to those of Stein:

    The exit polling asked voters they would have cast ballots for if there were only two candidates (Clinton and Trump). A quarter of Johnson voters said Clinton, 15 percent said Trump, and 55 percent said they would not have voted. Numbers were similar for Stein voters, with about a quarter saying they would have chosen Clinton, 14 percent saying Trump, and 61 percent saying they would not have voted.

    https://www.cbsnews.com/news/cbs-news-exit-polls-how-donald-trump-won-the-us-presidency/

    I’ve come up with two possible (and not mutually exclusive) explanations for this: (1) Johnson attracted some lefties who liked his stances on such issues as pot, SSM, and the Iraq War (2) He attracted the types of Republican-leaning voters who preferred Clinton over Trump in a two-way race.

    My fear is that if there’s a Republican-leaning independent now, the effect will be less to split the conservative vote than to split the anti-Trump vote. I sensed a similar dynamic in the governor’s races in Kansas and Alaska this year: it was no longer Republican vs. Democrat, it was insane vs. non-insane, and therefore the Republican-ish indie in both races caused more problems for the Democratic candidate than the Republican (with the indie in Alaska eventually dropping out and endorsing the Dem).

    Is that what a Jeff Flake or John Kasich independent candidacy in 2020 would do? Or would it just peel away potential Trump votes, as you suggest? I don’t think any of us knows. But it sure as hell is not something I’d be eager to put to the test.