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Flake Retiring; McConnell-Allied PAC Vows to Keep Bannon Pick Out

WASHINGTON -- The GOP senator who wrote a scathing critique of the Trump era and was being targeted in a Bannon-backed primary challenged will retire instead of facing re-election.

Ahead of his official announcement that he will serve the rest of his term but not run again, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) told the Arizona Republic that he believes "there may not be a place for a Republican like me in the current Republican climate or the current Republican Party."

"This spell will pass, but not by next year," he said of the Trump influence on the party.

"Here's the bottom line: 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 said. "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."

Flake, who was re-elected six times in the House before winning Sen. Jon Kyl's (R-Ariz.) former seat in 2012, noted that he didn't think running as an independent was a path to victory.

Former state Sen. Kelli Ward, who was endorsed last week by former White House chief strategist and Breitbart chairman Steve Bannon in his "war" against the GOP establishment, has led Flake for the nomination in several recent polls. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) trounced Ward by 20 points in 2016 when she tried to primary the former GOP presidential nominee.

Out in the lead for the Democratic nomination is Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), a moderate member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition in the House.

With Flake out, possible GOP hopefuls could include Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), the first American woman to fly in combat, or Rep. Dave Schweikert (R-Ariz.).

"Sen. Jeff Flake will be remembered for a distinguished and impactful career in Congress, as well as his independent streak and genial manner," Steven Law, president and CEO of the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC allied with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said in a statement.

"The one political upshot of Sen. Flake’s decision today is that Steve Bannon’s hand-picked candidate, conspiracy-theorist Kelli Ward, will not be the Republican nominee for this Senate seat in 2018," Law, who is McConnell's former chief of staff, added.

In remarks on the Senate floor today, McConnell said he was "grateful that the senator from Arizona will be here for another year and a half."

"We have big things to try to accomplish for the American people," the GOP leader added. "From my perspective, the senator from Arizona has been a great team player – always trying to get a constructive outcome no matter what the issue before us.”

Ward tweeted, "Arizona voters are the big winner in @JeffFlake's decision to not seek reelection. They deserve a strong, conservative in the Senate who supports @POTUS & the 'America First' agenda. Our campaign proudly offers an optimistic path forward for Arizona & America."

President Trump, who joined Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill today for their weekly policy luncheon, called Flake "toxic" in an August tweet backing Ward.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) issued a statement praising Flake as "one of the finest human beings I've met in politics."

"He is moral, upright, and strong and he will be missed by just about everybody in the Senate," Schumer added.

Flake and Trump first crossed swords during the campaign. In a July 2016 closed-door meeting with senators on Capitol Hill, Flake introduced himself as “the other senator from Arizona — the one who didn’t get captured — and I want to talk to you about statements like that.” Trump reportedly threatened to start publicly attacking the senator, while Flake urged Trump to stop attacking Mexicans. When Trump declared that Flake would lose November 2016, the senator noted that he was not up for re-election.

Flake has since launched a pro-NAFTA campaign, arguing Trump's anti-NAFTA stance hurts border economies like his state. He also defended Deedra Abboud, an opponent running for the Democratic nomination to unseat him, after she was subjected to a torrent of online abuse for being Muslim. "Hang in there @deedra2018. Sorry you have to put up with this. Lots of wonderful people across AZ. You'll find them," Flake tweeted.

At the beginning of August, Flake released Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle.

In the Politico op-ed "My Party Is in Denial About Donald Trump," Flake asked, "Where does such capitulation take us?"

"If by 2017 the conservative bargain was to go along for the very bumpy ride because with congressional hegemony and the White House we had the numbers to achieve some long-held policy goals—even as we put at risk our institutions and our values—then it was a very real question whether any such policy victories wouldn’t be Pyrrhic ones. If this was our Faustian bargain, then it was not worth it. If ultimately our principles were so malleable as to no longer be principles, then what was the point of political victories in the first place?" he wrote in part.

The senator said at the time of his book's launch that a notion "that you have to be meaner" is "not a conservative value."

"If we ascribe the worst motives to our opponents and demean them and call them clowns or losers, you just lose the ability to sit down and solve the big issues and actually enact conservative policy. That's the paradox of all of this," Flake said. "You know, somehow conservativism has become being mean or loud and you can't enact conservative policy if you act that way."