The Fix

What Jeff Flake’s retirement foretells about the Senate in 2018

Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) is the second Republican after Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.) who does not plan to seek reelection in 2018. Flake is one of the most conservative senators, but his state tends to only slightly favor Republican candidates in elections.

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Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) is the second Republican after Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.) who does not plan to seek reelection in 2018. Flake is one of the most conservative senators, but his state tends to only slightly favor Republican candidates in elections.

This chart compares the ideologies of senators with the states they represent. Each dot represents a senator — Democratic, independent and Republican.

Senators are positioned according to their states’ presidential voting records, from most Democratic (on the left) to most Republican (right). Conservative senators are at the top, and the most liberal are on the bottom. Some senators are mismatched, voting out of step with their states’ preferences.

Democrats are defending many of the seats up in 2018 (highlighted). Flake’s retirement could make Arizona an easier target for the Democrats, who appear ready to nominate a formidable, maybe even GOP-friendly challenger.

Flake is among the most conservative Republicans in the Senate. Yet his criticism of President Trump — including his book repudiating the president — and Trump’s tweets supporting his opponent jeopardized his primary prospects.

Both retiring Republicans criticized Trump on Tuesday. Flake called Trump’s behavior “reckless, outrageous and undignified.” Corker told CNN earlier in the day that Trump “debases our country.”

Incumbents traditionally enjoy an advantage, which makes any retirement problematic for their party. But of the two, Flake’s retirement is more concerning for Republicans: Arizona is more of a battleground than Tennessee.

Sen. Dean Heller (Nev.) is the most vulnerable of the Republican incumbents up in 2018. He’s also the only one running in a state that Hillary Clinton won in 2016.

While she is not up for reelection in 2018, Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) could have left another moderate Republican seat open had she decided to retire to run for governor. She opted to stay in the Senate earlier this month.

Populist promoter Stephen K. Bannon has said he wants to unseat most incumbent senators, except Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), in primary challenges. Bannon has already endorsed opponents for Heller’s, Flake’s and Corker’s races.

Flake’s retirement shows Bannon’s strategy has heft. But what’s still unknown is whether Bannon’s preferred candidates can win general elections in somewhat moderate states.

The Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voter Index measures partisan lean. To get a score, the 2012 and 2016 presidential election results in each state or congressional district were compared with the national average. Read more.

The first dimension of the DW-Nominate index scores a lawmaker's voting record between -1 (most liberal) and 1 (most conservative). Read more.

Methodology

The Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voter Index measures partisan lean. To get a score, the 2012 and 2016 presidential election results in each state or congressional district were compared with the national average. Read more.

The first dimension of the DW-Nominate index scores a lawmaker's voting record between -1 (most liberal) and 1 (most conservative). Read more.

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