Points for honesty, Sen. Jeff Flake.
In announcing his shocking retirement on Wednesday afternoon — an occasion on which politicians will often disingenuously allude to spending more time with their families — the Arizona Republican offered an explanation that seemed brutally honest: I couldn't win.
The big quote from the Arizona Republic, which broke the story:
“Here's the bottom line: The path that I would have to travel to get the Republican nomination is a path I'm not willing to take, and that I can't in good conscience take,” Flake told the Republic in a telephone interview. “It would require me to believe in positions I don't hold on such issues as trade and immigration, and it would require me to condone behavior that I cannot condone.”
A looser interpretation of this would be: I would have to be more like President Trump and more accepting of Trump to win, and I cannot do that.
That's at once a pretty stunning admission for a senator to make and also one that confirms the writing on the wall. We've only had limited quality polling on senators across the country, but most of it has shown running afoul of Trump is poisonous for Republican senators with the GOP base.
Flake's numbers have been especially brutal, with his approval rating plummeting. One poll showed three times as many Arizonans disapproved of him as approved. And multiple polls have showed him trailing conspiracy theory-wielding Republican opponent Kelli Ward by double digits. Ward was last seen nationally suggesting that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) should step down after his brain cancer diagnosis and that she should be appointed to replace him.
On a national level, a George Washington University poll in August showed a majority of Republicans living in House districts controlled by the GOP — 53 percent — said their member of Congress had not been supportive enough of Trump. Just 4 percent said the member had been “too supportive.”
But Flake's peril is especially remarkable when you consider that he has among the most conservative records in the Senate — and in the House before that. Despite that, he created an untenable situation for himself by criticizing Trump and separating himself from the president's signature issues, which he conspicuously mentioned in his quote.
Flake conceded in remarks on the Senate floor that he felt the party had moved away from “traditional” 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 to nomination in the Republican Party,” Flake said.
It's a testament to the fact that, no matter how unpopular Trump might be across the country, he has effectively hijacked the Republican Party and recast it in his image. Flake believes the party has changed so much in just a few short years that he can't even win a primary in a party in which he has won lots of them.
And it suggests that Trump's tearing down and/or reinvention of the Republican Party may not be so hypothetical anymore. The first two retiring Senate Republicans this year happen to be two of his biggest critics. As Stephen K. Bannon seeks to rid the Senate of wishy-washy establishment incumbents who won't rebuke Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Trump is casting members out by creating a party that they feel is no longer suitable for them.
What lasting effect that has on the party going forward is anybody's guess, but Flake served notice Thursday that it had changed to be more in Trump's image. And that's a massive moment in GOP history.