It can’t feel good for Arizona Republican Jeff Flake to be attacked and maligned, especially when the senator is up for re-election and when the attacker is Donald Trump, the president from his own party who has gone out of his way to tell his 36 million Twitter followers that he thinks Flake is a “flake.”
At his rally in Phoenix on Tuesday night, Trump, without referring to Flake by name, said the senator was “weak on borders, weak on crime,” adding that “nobody knows who the hell he is.”
But Flake should take comfort in the fact that, at least so far, GOP primary voters just haven’t seemed to care who Trump thinks they should vote for. The president certainly has his ride-or-die supporters, but when it comes to other people’s elections, it’s Trump who has been been the non-factor in a series of contests in 2016 and in special elections this year. (Sad!)
That was the case last year in Flake’s own state of Arizona, where Sen. John McCain faced what everyone expected to be a tight GOP primary and tough general election in the red-to-purple state.
Despite the fact that Trump famously criticized McCain’s time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and Trump dismissed him as “not a war hero,” McCain cruised to victory over former state Sen. Kelli Ward in the GOP primary by 11 points and even outperformed Trump in the state in the November general election. While McCain coasted to a 13-point victory over Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, Trump beat Hillary Clinton by just 4 points in the state.
The one candidate in Arizona who Trump really did get behind? Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who lost his re-election bid by more than 10 points and might get a presidential pardon from Trump sometime soon. (He was found guilty last month of criminal contempt for ignoring a court order in a racial profiling case.)
Coattails? More like a jump suit.
On the same day McCain won his GOP primary in Arizona, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., did the same in Florida, even though Trump had mocked him for months as “Little Marco.” Rubio even faced a primary opponent who dubbed himself the “Little Trump of Florida,” but Little Marco ended up clobbering Little Trump that August with 72 percent of the vote. And like McCain, Rubio also outperformed Trump in November, defeating his Democratic opponent, Rep. Patrick Murphy, by 8 points, while Trump only squeaked past Clinton by a little more than a point.
You’d think that a Trump endorsement (or attack) would pack more punch once he got to the White House, but so far, GOP primary voters have met the president’s input on special elections with a “Meh.”
In the Georgia special election to replace Rep. Tom Price earlier this year, an entire slate of Trump converts, super fans and campaign pals ran in the race, but not one got 10 percent of the vote, and most didn’t get anywhere close.
The chairman of Trump’s “national diversity coalition” finished with 0.2 percent of the vote, as did Amy Kremer, a tea party founder who had been endorsed by Sean Hannity and Katrina Pierson, the Trump campaign’s national spokeswoman. Instead, former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel won the seat without ever campaigning with or for Trump, an effort that, in the end, was not necessary or perhaps even wise.
And just last week, Trump endorsed Sen. Luther Strange, who was running in a special election GOP primary for the seat he’d been appointed to in Alabama, where Trump won with 63 percent of the vote in November and remains an unchallenged Yellowhammer favorite. But even Trump’s magic in Alabama seems to be neutered. Strange finished second to former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, 39 percent to 33 percent.
A JMC Analytics poll this week sent up especially bad news for the White House. The poll not only showed Strange trailing Moore by 19 points in the September runoff — 51 percent to 32 percent — it also revealed that Trump’s endorsement was a complete nothing-burger, with 25 percent saying Trump’s nod made them more likely to vote for Strange, 23 percent saying it made them less likely to vote for him, and a majority, 51 percent, saying it made no difference.
Gunning for Flake
The president now has his eye on Flake, but he’s been gunning for the Arizonan for some time, dating back to Flake’s decision to not endorse Trump and to not attend the Republican convention where he was nominated. Last summer, before Trump won the White House, he vowed to personally take Flake down in 2016, which Flake had to remind him was not the year he was up for re-election. But now that Flake’s re-election cycle has arrived, it’s clear that Trump has not forgotten the slight.
Trump has called the soft-spoken conservative a “non-factor” and “toxic.” Flake is neither. Voters want change and authenticity. But Trump going after candidates just to settle personal scores not only hasn’t worked, it is making him just another politician and is giving voters neither the authenticity nor change they are looking for.
It’s too early to see how Flake’s race will really set up, but it’s not too soon to say Trump’s efforts to defeat him won’t make any difference.
At this point, if Donald Trump were a sweepstakes prize, you’d call him “non-transferable.”
If he were a disease, the doctor would tell you, “Don’t worry, he’s not contagious.”
If he were a political brand, which he is, your consultant would probably tell you to do what GOP voters have done so far with the president’s insults, threats, and outbursts — shrug your shoulders and move on.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.