When a long-time Democratic Senate staffer insisted that Sen. Jeff Flake’s speech announcing he will not seek re-election means the GOP will lose the Senate in 2018, I reminded her of Harry Truman’s dictum, “Never confuse wishes for facts.” Flake’s decision to give up on re-election was inevitable due to his own actions years before Donald Trump came on the scene. They have no relevance to anyone else’s political future.
In 2012, Flake was elected to the Senate with only 1,104,457 votes (49.2 percent) while on that same day Mitt Romney received 1,233,654. That more than one in 10 Republican voters voted for Romney but not him was a message to Flake. Moreover, Flake had spent $9 million to his opponent’s $6 million. His narrow win despite the large financial disparity was a message from voters that he had work to do to earn their votes next time.
Flake ignored it. In only three months on the job, he made himself the country’s most unpopular senator. In April 2013, only 32 percent of Arizona voters approved his job performance, while 51 percent disapproved.
Jeff Flake Alienated Voters From the Start In Big Ways
One issue was his April 16, 2013 vote against the Manchin-Toomey amendment to expand background checks for gun buyers. Gabby Gifford, a beloved Arizona congresswoman, was gunned down in an assassination attempt in 2011 in which 14 bystanders were wounded and six killed, including a 9-year-old child. Arizona Sen. John McCain voted for the amendment and was re-elected last year with a 13-point margin.
In a capitol hallway just before the vote, The New York Times reported, “Ms. Giffords, who still struggles to speak because of the damage that a bullet did to her brain, grabbed Mr. Flake’s arm and tried — furiously and with difficulty — to say that she had needed his vote. The best she could get out was the word ‘need.’” In Flake’s own words, “it was a popular amendment, and I voted against it.”
Another issue was immigration. In the weeks between election and swearing in as a senator, Flake flip-flopped for a second time on immigration. Prior to 2011, as a House member, Flake had been ardently pro-immigration liberalization, which fits his libertarian ideology.
When campaigning for the Senate, he announced he had changed his position and now believed we must put border security first. In his own words, “The lawless situation in northern Mexico largely driven by drug cartels is fueling lawlessness north of the border. Such a situation calls for an exclusive focus on border security.” He told voters, “In the past I have supported a broad approach to immigration reform—increased border security coupled with a temporary worker program. I no longer do.”
But after winning his Senate election, Flake immediately reverted to his immigration expansion policies. He became one of the “Gang of Eight” working on a comprehensive immigration plan. So much for an exclusive focus on border security.
The issue here is not immigration policy. Flake’s position is close to mine, but you have to be honest with voters about your policy goals. Voters will accept a politician who changes his mind. What you cannot do is flip-flop before an election, then flop-flip back like Flake did days after his 2013 election. This is almost always fatal to a political career. For a politician like Flake, who represents himself as a man of principle, flip-flopping is doubly destructive.
It was even more damaging since his GOP primary opponent and Democrat general election opponent had run ads highlighting his broken promise, made in his first campaign, to limit himself to three terms in the House. When asked about this by Reason.tv, he replied, “I lied. I don’t know what else to say.”
Like every senator in his first year, Flake was defining himself for Arizona voters as their U.S. senator. By the end of the year, his political future was doomed.
Then There Were Jeff Flake’s Bizarre Hobbyhorses
His conduct suggests a devil-may-care attitude as if he knew he would not get re-elected. As a senator, Flake devoted his time to some strange hobbyhorses. He was obsessed with a campaign to change U.S. policy toward the Castro regime in Cuba, something of zero interest to most Arizona voters.
Flake has taken more than a dozen trips to Cuba. Shortly after becoming a senator in January 2013, he was off to Cuba with a large group of very liberal congressional Democrats. He returned to Cuba in November 2014, then again in December 2014, August 2015, and March 2016. The 2015 trip was to celebrate with Secretary of State John Kerry the restoration of full diplomatic relations with the Cuban dictatorship. In 2016 he went to celebrate President Obama’s state visit to the Castro brothers.
While Flake gushed to an Arizona NPR radio station about “Watching the president and his advisers looking out the window as we landed, and the excitement of that,” NPR listeners with Che Guevara posters are neither likely GOP primary voters nor likely Flake voters in a general election.
Again, the issue here is not Cuba policy. Normally a new senator elected with only 49 percent of the vote will focus on his constituent concerns and spend as much time as possible at home trying to build his voter base. Especially in 2013, Flake should have focused on Arizona, but Flake refused to cater to his constituents. With his high level of voter disapproval in early 2013, it is baffling that Flake would travel repeatedly to Cuba and ignore his constituents.
Senators are extremely busy. Every minute spent on Cuba was time taken away from other issues that the Arizona voters thought more important.
Cuba was not his only foreign destination. In his first months in the Senate he took taxpayer-funded trips to Israel, Afghanistan, Italy, Cape Verde, South Africa, and Argentina. In May 2013, instead of spending the Memorial Day recess in Arizona trying to rescue his tanking popularity, he took off for a week’s stay on a desert island in the Pacific with his kids, in something of a publicity stunt.
Flake made sure the trip received a lot of publicity, circulating shirtless photos proving he is a gym rat. The Hill newspaper cited his “chiseled physique” in choosing him for first place in its annual Most Beautiful People in Washington contest. From that perspective the trip was a great success, but it did nothing for his problems with Arizona voters.
In August 2014, he took off for another vacation on a deserted Pacific island, this time with Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico (the Hill’s 2009 Most Beautiful winner) as co-stars in a Discovery Channel reality program about two political rivals stuck on a desert island. More shirtless photos were circulated. When a politician is in deep trouble with the voters at home, the publicity he got for the trip served to remind them that he was neither in Arizona with them nor in Washington doing his job.
Once a Waste Hawk, Flake Now Loves Foreign Junkets
Foreign junkets are not popular with Republican voters. The Foreign Relations Committee has seen its Republican members go down in defeat on a fairly regular basis. The Republicans on the committee have to be very careful.
In early 2016, Flake took a long trip through four African countries visiting game parks “to investigate the harmful effects of wildlife trafficking and poaching.” Trips to study wildlife trafficking have become very popular with members of Congress, as the junkets usually include wonderful stays in game park lodges, escorted trips into the parks, and sighting of the “Big Five” animals (lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo).
As a rule, these taxpayer-funded safaris are taken by members of Congress either in safe seats or in their last term. When Flake and his group got too close to baby elephants, they were chased away by the mother elephants. Flake captured the elephant charge and made sure his office got lots of publicity for him.
It was a puzzling decision, since his “brand” has been as the guy who attacks wasteful spending by other members of Congress. Anyone with a modicum of political sensitivity would know if you are the budget hawk and scourge of wasteful government spending, then you do not go on taxpayer-funded safaris. If you do go, you keep quiet about it unless you do not care what Republican voters think.
In 2012 as a candidate for Senate, Flake told a reporter he didn’t think his job was to represent the voters: “The old question is the same. Are you sent to Washington as a delegate or as a representative? Are you to vote the wishes of your constituents, or do you vote your conscience? I’m decidedly in the latter camp. . . . . If you vote too far away from what the people think at home, you’ll be out after your term.”