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A Flake Primary Challenge Would Have Only Helped Trump

Trump does his best with his base when he's at his worst with his challengers.
January 29, 2019
Featured Image
Jeff Flake. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Jeff Flake, the former Arizona senator who since 2016 has positioned himself as one of Donald Trump’s most prominent Republican critics, much to the detriment of his political career, announced Tuesday that he will not challenge the president in the 2020 primary. Instead, he is signing on as a contributor to CBS News, where, one presumes, he will transfix the nation with the sort of bleary monologues that became his Senate floor trademark in 2018.

The announcement has brought out the predictable range of responses from the folks who love to dunk on Flake as a poster boy for anti-Trump cuckishness and impotence, with Donald Trump Jr. leading the way:

https://twitter.com/DonaldJTrumpJr/status/1090242453834211329

Love him or hate him, it’s hard to argue with Donnie Junior’s logic here. Although he was a staunch and well-liked conservative for years, Flake’s Arizona constituency dropped him like a sack of bricks when he started making himself out to be the anti-Trump. No less a personage than Kelli Ward—the former state legislator and onetime InfoWars guest who, incidentally, was just elected state GOP chair—was spanking him in head-to-head polling by September 2017, and by October he had announced he was calling it quits in the Senate. The odds are already slim that any Republican will successfully challenge Trump, who maintains sky-high approval ratings among likely GOP primary voters—let alone one the president already broke like a twig.

In fact, there’s a sense in which a primary challenge from a guy like Flake, far from overturning the Trump presidency, could actually be the shot in the arm Trump needs to get out of his own current funk. My colleague Jonathan V. Last has written about the idea that Trump could see a GOP primary against a weak contender as a squash match: a chance to give Republican voters a sharp reminder of why exactly they picked him out of the lineup last time around. As Last wrote, Flake would present Trump with “the perfect foil: A young-ish pretty boy with no national constituency who can easily be painted as a RINO who’s weak on immigration and might not break the 15 percent mark in New Hampshire.” Behind Trump Jr.’s mockery, perhaps you can detect a hint of mourning.

And maybe Flake knows this himself. His announcement comes at a chaotic and uncertain time in the prelude to 2020: More Democratic challengers seemingly come out of the woodwork every day, with no clear frontrunner emerging, while a mind-boggling 57 percent of voters say they won’t vote to re-elect the president. If Flake thought he was the only person who could stand between, say, Kamala Harris and the White House, it seems likely he’d give it the old college try. But it’s pretty clear by now that Flake doesn’t harbor that particular delusion: “I do hope that there is a Republican who challenges the president in the primary,” Flake said Tuesday, “but that somebody won’t be me.”

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger was a senior writer at The Bulwark.