The surprise retirement of Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) boosted Democratic optimism about what once seemed unthinkable: winning control of the Senate in 2018.
At the same time, Flake's move emboldened progressives who want the party, locked out of power at every level, to move further to the left — even as the national party plays defense in states won last year by President Trump.
Before Flake's announcement, Democrats already were investing in Arizona's 2018 race on the theory that the state's growing Latino electorate and Trump's unpopularity would make it competitive. In 2016, Trump won the state with just 48.1 percent of the vote, the worst performance by a Republican presidential nominee there in 20 years. In a Gallup poll of all 50 states conducted this summer, Trump's approval in Arizona had tumbled to 43 percent.
"Republicans in Congress remain in lockstep with the Trump agenda and silent in the face of the president's disgraceful behavior," Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said in a statement. "The last thing Arizonans need is another rubber-stamp Republican for Donald Trump's reckless right-wing policies that hurt working families."
Democrats also had been competing in Arizona out of necessity. In 2018, just eight Republican senators face reelection, compared with 23 Democrats and two independents who caucus with their party. Only one Republican, Sen. Dean Heller (Nev.), is up in a state that voted last year for Hillary Clinton. In contrast, 10 Democrats are up in states that voted for Trump, five of them in states that also voted for Mitt Romney four years earlier.
But since the start of the year, Trump's troubled presidency and the nervous energy of progressive activists has brightened the picture for Democrats. In Nevada and Arizona, the party's top recruits — Reps. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — quickly organized campaigns and began raising more money than the Republican incumbents. In both states, conservative insurgent candidates, supported by former White House political strategist Stephen K. Bannon, have been attacking the incumbents from the left.
"Senator Flake's retirement is another example of the divisiveness roiling Republican primaries," Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman David Bergstein said in a statement. "These dynamics will continue to hinder Republican efforts in Arizona, and whatever candidate succeeds in claiming their nomination will fall short of Kyrsten Sinema and her proven record of results for Arizona's working families."
Before Tuesday, Democratic incumbents have played defense and raked in cash. In the third fundraising quarter, almost all of the Democrats' 2018 Senate candidates, with the sole exception of Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), raised more than $1 million. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who some see as the Democrats' most vulnerable incumbent, raised $2.9 million; Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) raised $2.6 million; and Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) raised $2.4 million.
Democrats remain quietly nervous about Florida, where wealthy Gov. Rick Scott (R.) may challenge Sen. Bill Nelson (D). But in many 2018 battlegrounds, Republicans have struggled to recruit their top challengers, with musician Kid Rock confirming Tuesday — in an interview with Howard Stern — that he was only joking about a Michigan Senate bid.
And in Alabama, a state that Democrats have not contested since 1996, former U.S. attorney Doug Jones is running an unexpectedly cash-rich campaign ahead of a Dec. 12 special election, running television ads against Republican nominee Roy Moore.
"We've got to help Doug — he's an underdog," Perez said Saturday at the DNC's fall meeting in Las Vegas.
But the Democrats' opportunities also have inspired progressive activists to demand more — especially in Arizona. Sinema, who has represented a fast-
growing part of the Phoenix area since 2013, has one of the most conservative voting records of any House Democrat.
Sinema was one of just 11 Democrats to vote for legislation that would make it easier to deport immigrants who are gang members, and one of just seven to vote for legislation that would deny Affordable Care Act subsidies to undocumented immigrants. In a study by the data journalism site FiveThirtyEight, Sinema voted for Trump-favored legislation 51 percent of the time, more than almost any Democrat.
As the Flake news spread, some progressives suggested that Sinema might get a primary challenge — or might, at least, want to move to the left. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a longtime chair of the House Progressive Caucus, said there was "buzz among progressives and labor" about seeking an alternative candidate now that Flake was gone.
"On some issues coming up — with DACA, with tax reform, with the budget — people are waiting to see how she positions herself," Grijalva said. DACA refers to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Some progressives, like Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), suggested that Phoenix-area Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) could run for the seat to Sinema's left. On Tuesday, the Voto Latino Action Network launched a "Draft Gallego" petition.
"This seat will be a huge opportunity for Democrats if they run an inspiring candidate with a bold progressive, populist message on issues like 'Medicare for All' and high wages for workers," said Kaitlin Sweeney, a spokeswoman for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which trains and funds left-wing candidates. "Arizonans aren't looking for a milquetoast Blue Dog that runs as a Republican."
In a Tuesday interview, Gallego ruled out a run, saying that his 9-month-old son "needs a father" and that "Republicans would find a serious contender to replace Flake."
"Kyrsten's a formidable candidate, and there's very few candidates who can run statewide," Gallego said.
As of Tuesday, Democrats also were confident that they could take advantage of the GOP's missteps without overstretching and abandoning some at-risk incumbents.
The only top-tier primary challenge of a Democratic senator is coming in California, where state Sen. Kevin De León is challenging Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) on a message of generational change. California Republicans, meanwhile, who failed to land a candidate for an open Senate race in 2016, seem ill-poised to take advantage of the Democrats' division.
Khanna, who works with the progressive group Justice Democrats to promote insurgent candidates, suggested that primaries and competition would actually help the party.
"The traditionalists look at this and say, hey, there's a finite amount of money — this should be put into swing states," Khanna said. "My view is that the strongest moment for the Democratic Party in recent history was when Hillary Clinton ran against Barack Obama. More people got involved; more people gave money. We can expand the pie."
And Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Tex.), whose long-shot bid against Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) has competed for progressives' money and attention, said he isn't worried about Arizona.
"We've had 7,000 more individual contributors than Cruz in the last quarter," said O'Rourke. "The fact that the only sitting Republican senator Bannon won't oppose is Ted Cruz — that speaks volumes."