WASHINGTON (AP) – Republican Sen. Jeff Flake said Tuesday he would not seek re-election next year, delivering a forceful condemnation of the "flagrant disregard of truth and decency" and bemoaning political complicity in a Senate speech clearly directed at President Donald Trump.
Speaking to a rapt audience of other senators, the first-term Arizona lawmaker spelled out his frustration and disappointment in a floor speech before relaying the news that he would not be on the ballot in 2018.
"There are times we must risk our careers," Flake said. "Now is such a time.”
Flake, who has criticized the path that the Republican Party has taken under Trump, said the impulse “to threaten and scapegoat” could turn America and the GOP into a “fearful, backward-looking people” and a “fearful, backward-looking party.” Flake didn’t mention Trump by name, but clearly was directing his remarks at the president and his administration.
Flake, a former House member, is a conservative who favors limited government and free markets, but one known to work on bipartisan legislation. Most notably, he has worked on immigration legislation aimed at finding a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants living here illegally.
"A political career does not mean much if we are complicit in undermining these values," he said. He received applause at the conclusion of his remarks.
His extraordinary speech came shortly after Trump had joined Senate Republicans at their weekly policy luncheon and came a few hours after the president had engaged in a war of words with another retiring Republican senator, Bob Corker of Tennessee.
Republicans and Democrats were upset with the news.
"It is one of the most depressing things that has happened during my time in the Senate," said Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., who called Flake a man of great integrity and principle.
Moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said she was "extraordinarily disappointed" and called Flake a "person of utmost integrity."
After bucking Trump in a state the president won, Flake is bottoming out in polls. Republicans may be left with a hard-core conservative challenger that might win the primary but lose in the general election.
Flake was facing a challenge from former state Sen. Kelli Ward, who failed in her effort to take out Sen. John McCain last year but has gained some traction this year. Last week, former Trump strategist Steve Bannon attended a fundraiser for her.
But mainstream Republicans in Arizona believe Ward cannot beat Rep. Krysten Sinema, who is running in her primary as the only well-known Democratic candidate. They've been searching for another candidate to take on Flake, and his decision to step aside opens the door wide for those efforts.
Besides Ward, other potential candidates for Flake's seat include current state university regent Jay Heiler, former state GOP chairman Robert Graham, state treasurer and 2016 Trump campaign CFO Jeff DeWit. Other names that have been floated in recent weeks include Reps. Paul Gosar and Trent Franks, conservative stalwarts who sit in safe GOP seats.
Heiler announced early this month that he was considering a run. He was chief of staff to Arizona Gov. Fife Symington in the 1990s and has been involved in numerous political campaigns.
Former Gov. Jan Brewer was pushing Heiler as a candidate.
"I've known Jeff for a long time and I admire him for his service that he has given to our state," she said Friday. "But I believe it is an opportunity for me to support a different candidate, someone that I've known for a long while, and somebody that I believe will serve Arizona the best."
On Tuesday, she tweeted that "the 2018 Senate race about to get real interesting!"
Herschel Fink, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party, said Flake's retirement "further exposes the Republican Party's civil war – which will continue in full force in Arizona as the GOP struggles with a field of candidates who go further and further out of touch with voters."
Associated Press writer Bob Christie in Phoenix contributed to this report.