WASHINGTON – Sen. Jeff Flake, often called one of the most vulnerable senators facing re-election in 2018, has started aggressively fundraising, and reported having almost $3 million in the bank.
In his most recent campaign filing with the Federal Election Commission, the Arizona Republican reported raising a total of $4.3 million, almost $1.5 million in the last quarter alone.
That dwarfed the fundraising by his only two announced challengers so far. Republican Kelli Ward reported raising $414,303 and having $83, 865 in cash on hand as of June 30, while Democratic newcomer Deedra Abboud had $2,755 in the bank after raising $6,775, according to FEC filings.
But Flake cannot rest easy. With more than a year to the election, there is still time for a heavyweight challenger to get into the race against Flake, who was ranked as one of the least popular senators among his constituents in a recent poll.
And Flake has drawn the ire of President Donald Trump with whom he has sparred repeatedly both during the campaign and in the White House. Trump reportedly offered to personally fund a challenger to Flake and has hosted potential opponents at the White House.
Flake, who called on Trump to drop out of the campaign after recordings surfaced of Trump bragging about groping women against their will, has not backed down. After Trump berated Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Flake took to Twitter on Wednesday to say he has “confidence and support” for Sessions, who he called a “man of integrity.”
Some experts say Flake’s run-ins with the president could work in his favor in the long run in a state that some say is starting to swing from red to blue.
“Flake can say he’s challenged Trump and gone against the party, which might help,” said Jason Rose, a political and public relations strategist based in Scottsdale.
But Flake has a big hill to climb in terms of popularity.
In a ranking of senators based on popularity – or lack thereof – released by Morning Consult earlier this month, Flake and fellow Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain were third- and second-least popular in the country. Only Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was less popular.
McCain was more disliked than Flake, but also has a higher approval rating. Flake had an approval rating of 37 percent compared to a disapproval rating of 45 percent.
But Flake has dealt with low popularity before. When he voted against a bipartisan proposal in 2013 that would have expanded background checks for firearm purchases to include online and gun-show sales, Flake said on his Facebook page that his popularity was “somewhere just below pond scum.”
Ward may have harmed her own approval ratings last week when she called on McCain to step down one day after it was revealed that he has been diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer.
Rose said Ward’s campaign will need significant third-party donors if she hopes to compete with Flake’s fundraising, but her comments about McCain have put her chances of reaching those donors “at zero.”
“Her viability as a challenger is over and she’s effectively a dead candidate walking whether she knows it or not,” Rose said.
Rose said Flake still needs to plan for a possible primary challenge from Arizona State Treasurer Jeff DeWit, who has flirted with a run and who served as national chief operating officer of Trump’s presidential campaign.
“Jeff DeWit isn’t to be underestimated at all,” Rose said.
If he ran, DeWit could face a challenge with regional donors, but could rely on national donors and organizations specifically out to defeat Flake, Rose said.
Calls to Flake’s office were not immediately returned, and DeWit’s staff has said previously that the office does not comment on campaign matters. Ward’s campaign could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Despite the challenges, Rose said Flake also has the power of incumbency and cannot be counted out.
“Flake has a real chance to win,” he said.