For once, Republicans finally caught a break. Not that the media would say it. Rather, they use Jeff Flake’s retirement to fuel the argument the GOP is simultaneously at war with Trump and bowing to his wishes, ousting insurgents to the President’s will.
This may or may not be true but for the purposes of this article it is a much broader scope. Rather, Jeff Flake’s retirement is actually one of those rare cases where an incumbent retiring is a good thing. To prove this point, consider four factors.
First, Arizona is still a pretty red state all things considered. A lot has been made of how the state has drifted leftward and that is certainly true. But it also remains true not a single, statewide elected official is a Democrat and the state legislature is solidly red.
It is true the state was bluer in 2016 than it was in 2012 or 2008 but it is also true Clinton threw millions into the state while the GOP spent nothing. Additionally, there is some evidence more Republicans defected last year from voting red than Democrats voting blue.
All in all, the state was actually as red, at least at the Presidential level, in 2016 as it was in the Bush years. Essentially, the state has a Cook PVI of R+5, basically a red Oregon. Incidentally Oregon has a blue legislature and blue statewide elected officials. More importantly, while the state might be trending purple the state has more registered Republicans than either Democrats or Independents and the difference has stayed pretty steady since 2000.
It is true Flake only won election by three percentage points in 2012. Romney did better but the difference between the two is the Libertarian candidate in the Senate contest took five percent. Richard Carmona, running against Flake in 2012, took 46 percent compared to Obama’s 45 percent. Plus, in 2010, the state elected populist Governor Jan Brewer.
Arizona is still a loseable state for the party. Arizona is not Nevada, where demographics seem to have turned the state blue and only the right candidate can win. Rather, the state is still tepidly red and Democrats probably need a good year to win any statewide office. Consider the state has a PVI of R+5 and in 2010 Republicans struggled to win any state bluer than D+3. Ditto Democrats in 2012.
Secondly, Jeff Flake seemed hell-bent on doing everything he could to lose. Somehow he managed to annoy everybody. All things being equal, parties like incumbents running for reelection rather than defending an open seat for many reasons. But, Flake behaved like he wanted to lose.
The positions he took alienated himself to primary voters. He feuded publicly with Trump, supported immigration reform and attacked the party’s foreign policy. Yet, at the same time he destroyed any cross-over appeal by siding with the conservative wing of the party over and over. Worst of all, he angered the party base by feuding with Trump. It showed in his poll numbers against Kelli Ward.
Even if Flake somehow got past the primary his numbers against Kyrsten Sinema were not great. This, again, was due to attacking Trump but being so conservative he had little cross-over appeal. Unlike John McCain, Flake angered his base but had no other voters to fall back on. Put simply, a non-incumbent is actually stronger than Jeff Flake.
Third, one could argue Flake stepping out of the race could lead to the establishment backing a winning horse. There are easily a dozen Republican elected officials in the state that poll better than Flake and Kelly Ward. Even a populist insurgent could find establishment backing and get the best of both worlds. The support of Trump base voters and conventional suburban Republicans.
Lastly, Sinema is not a perfect candidate. On paper, she is the dream centrist candidate. But you can bet Republicans will paint her as a radical liberal (such as referring to herself as a “Prada Socialist”). She will have to introduce herself to the state while enduring these attack ads.
None of this guarantees that Arizona will stay red. Much remains to be seen which Republicans jump in the race and surely over the next year the race will take twists and turns. Regardless, after Flake’s retirement, Republicans are breathing a sigh of relief. There path to holding the Senate majority just became a little bit easier.