Donald Trump is looking to support a primary opponent of Arizona Senator Jeff Flake as punishment for Flake’s harsh comments about his presidency. Trump initially appeared to give the tacit support to former state Senator Kelly Ward. But during a meeting before the president’s rally in Phoenix last week, other GOP leaders in the state urged caution. Ward might be able to beat Flake in the primary but would make a weak candidate in the general election.
The president huddled with Arizona Treasurer Jeff DeWit, former state GOP Chairman Robert Graham, and Rep. Trent Franks before the rally took place. Part of the conversation was geared toward feeling out whether Graham or DeWit, both early supporters of Trump during his campaign, would mount a challenge in the Republican Senate primary. Ward, notably, was not granted an audience with the president nor was she made a VIP at the event even as DeWit emceed the night’s proceedings. And now, Graham is insisting that the president’s keeping his options open.
“There was no inclination that he was leaning towards Dr. Ward in any stretch of the imagination,” Graham told The Daily Beast in a phone interview. He said he and DeWit “talk a lot with people in the White House and the Trump campaign” and that they’re “leaning on Jeff and I to make a decision.”
DeWit’s office told The Daily Beast that he was not commenting on the race at this time.
The indecision from Trump over how to best approach the suddenly contentious GOP primary in Arizona is a reflection of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants style he’s brought to politics in general. The president’s tweet about Ward—“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!”—gave Ward’s campaign a major boost among pro-Trump media figures and allies like Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity.
Flake is vulnerable to a strong Republican challenger, and his re-election is no sure thing. But the GOP primary is a year away and a serious challenger to an incumbent senator would have to start now to make it competitive. DeWit plans on serving out his term as state treasurer and Franks may not feel the time is right to set his sights on higher office. That leaves Ward, who has the benefit of being looked on favorably by the president.
But how strongly should Trump support her? And should the president look to primary other Republicans who have displeased him?
Republicans on Capitol Hill lament President Trump’s aggressive behavior toward them, but some people in the president’s orbit are urging him to up the ante even further.
They say that, far from making nice, Trump needs to instill fear so that lawmakers do not feel at liberty to thwart him.
“Most members of Congress are arrogant, and until a scalp is actually taken they are going to continue to be defiant,” longtime Trump friend Roger Stone told The Hill. “All he needs to do is punish one incumbent and I think you’d see a sea-change.”
Advice like Stone’s feeds the president’s instincts to hit back hard against those whom he believes have wronged him: a list that at present appears to include Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as well as GOP Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Bob Corker (Tenn.).
Trump’s biggest defeat to date, on his attempt to gut the Affordable Care Act, came at the hands of McCain and Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska.), who joined Democrats to sink a Senate bill.
Other Trump loyalists join Stone in arguing that the president should neither forgive nor forget.
“He is 100 percent correct to go after McCain, Flake, Murkowksi,” said Sam Nunberg, who worked as an aide to Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Nunberg also expressed the hope that Trump would be able to engineer the defeat of Collins in a GOP primary if she sought to become Maine’s governor.
But Nunberg drew a distinction between those senators who have been critical of Trump and the GOP leadership on Capitol Hill.
“I do think it is counterproductive for him to have a strained relationship with Leader McConnell,” Nunberg said, citing both the danger to Trump’s legislative agenda and the widespread support McConnell enjoys among his colleagues.
At the moment, Trump doesn’t enjoy the personal popularity that would allow him to put the fear of God into recalcitrant GOP politicians. But is it wise to use the fear of primarying a member of his own party in the hopes that it will bring the rest of the GOP into line?
There are good arguments on both sides, but realistically, the president is bound to fail in his attempt to dethrone an incumbent in a party primary. There have to be special circumstances for a challenge to succeed. Lugar in Indiana and Bennett in Utah were challenged by smart, well-known, and well-funded challengers who successfully portrayed the incumbent as out of touch. Perhaps a “drain the swamp” pitch would work with the right challenger.
Does Trump gain anything by trying to get rid of a party member or do several high-profile failures only make him appear weaker? That’s what Trump will have to ask himself if he starts going after politicians who won’t do his bidding.