Kelli Ward took to social media after Senator Jeff Flake announced Tuesday he wouldn’t seek re-election in the 2018 campaign.
Shortly after Flake’s announcement, the Lake Havasu City Republican’s campaign staff issued a statement that praised her political rival’s decision.
“Arizona voters are the big winner in Jeff Flake’s decision to not seek re-election,” she said. “They deserve a strong conservative in the U.S. Senate who supports President Trump and the ‘America First’ agenda. Our campaign proudly offers an optimistic path forward for Arizona and America.”
It’s unclear what Flake’s announcement means for the future of Ward’s campaign. His exit could encourage new challengers to enter the political fray.
Polls in Arizona found Flake trailing Ward, as well as likely Democratic nominee, Rep. Krysten Sinema, D-Ariz., if he sought a second term next year.
Flake, meanwhile, used his retirement announcement as an opportunity to take a swipe at President Donald Trump and the current state of U.S. politics.
Flake said he was out of step with his party in the era of President Donald Trump.
The senator’s surprise announcement came after more than a year of criticism of Trump and the direction he had taken the party, culminating this year in a book called “Conscience of a Conservative.” In an unannounced Senate floor speech Tuesday announcing his retirement, Flake excoriated Trump without using his name.
“We must never allow ourselves to lapse into thinking that is just the way things are now. If we simply become used to this condition . . . then heaven help us,” Flake said, his voice shaking. “Without fear of the consequences and without consideration of the rules of what is politically safe, we must stop pretending that the conduct of some in our executive branch are normal. They are not normal. Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has become excused as telling it like it is when it is actually reckless, outrageous and undignified.”
Flake’s speech was watched from the floor by a bipartisan group of senators, who looked on grimly as he delivered the news.
On the Republican side, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was joined by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Pat Roberts, R-Kan., Rand Paul, R-Ky., Todd C. Young, R-Ind., Ben Sasse, R-Neb., John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn. - who has launched into his own criticism of Trump since announcing his own retirement.
Democrats watched from the other side of the room: Sens. Christopher A. Coons, D-Del., Tim Kaine, D-Va., Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.
“It is often said that children are watching. Well, they are. And what are we doing to do about that?,” Flake said. “When the next generation asks us, why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you speak up? What are we going to say? I rise to say, enough.”
Flake said senators “must dedicate ourselves to making sure that the anomalous never becomes the normal. With respect, we fooled ourselves long enough that a pivot to governing is right around the corner, a return to civility and stability right behind it. We know better than that. by now, we all know better than that.”
Flake also questioned whether his party continues to embrace his brand of conservatism.
“It is clear at this moment that a traditional conservative who believes in limited government and free markets, who is devoted to free trade, who is pro-immigration, has a narrower and narrower path” in the Republican Party, he said.
When Flake concluded, Sasse started clapping loudly, prompting colleagues in both parties to stand and applaud.
Later, McCain addressed the chamber, saying: “It’s been one of the great honors of my life to have the opportunity to serve” with Flake.
“I have seen Jeff Flake stand up for what he believes in, knowing that there would be a critical price to pay,” he said.
As Senate business resumed, Flake and McCain hugged. Flake shook the hands of Barrasso and Corker. In a scene resembling a wake, Democrats came over from their side of the chamber to shake Flake’s hand or give him a hug.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders dismissed Flake’s speech as “petty” and said he had lost so much support in Arizona he would not have been able to win re-election.
Asked for President Trump’s response to Flake’s retirement announcement, Sanders said, “I think that based on previous statements and certainly based on the lack of support that he has from the people of Arizona, it’s probably a good move.”
Sanders, invoking Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., another strong Trump critic, as well as Flake, told reporters, “I think that the people both in Tennessee and Arizona supported this president and I don’t think that the numbers are in favor of either of the two senators in their states.”
Flake served in the House for 12 years prior to being elected to the Senate.
Before the rise of Trump, he was seen as one of the GOP’s stalwart conservatives, a relentless but cheerful opponent of wasteful spending – and critic of his party when it broke the bank.
He opposed the Medicare prescription drug law, a major priority of George W. Bush’s administration, and criticized the party for growing the national debt.
“Republicans have adopted the belief or the principle that you spend money to get elected,” Flake told the libertarian magazine Reason in a 2006 interview, shortly before his party lost control of the House and Senate. “Staying in office, staying in power, has come to overwhelm everything.”
In 2007, Flake was removed from a plum spot on the House Judiciary Committee, a move interpreted as intraparty revenge for his criticism. But by 2011, Flake had succeeded in one of his long-held goals, banning “earmarks,” which members of Congress used to secure spending for projects in their districts.
Early speculation on Flake’s potential replacements focused on Reps. Dave Schweikert and Martha McSally, who represent districts northwest of Phoenix and around Tucson, respectively.