Arizona’s junior senator delivered a blistering attack on President Trump and the general degradation of politics in a Friday speech to business leaders in the state that hosts the first-in-the-nation presidential primary.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., introduced himself to the influential Granite State as a conservative in the tradition of Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater who now finds himself maligned on the right in the Trump era as a Republican-In-Name-Only.
“I stand before you, that rarest of species: the American conservative,” Flake said in well-received remarks on the campus of St. Anselm College. “’Americanus NeverTrumpus. Subgenus: RINO.’ Now there is a scurrilous rumor afoot that we are not only rare but endangered. But I don’t believe it.”
“And I’m the RINO,” Flake deadpanned. “It’s like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. What have they done with all the conservatives?”
But Flake also emphasized that, even as a lifelong Republican who is greatly concerned about the health of his party, “my country is more important.”
Flake told the New Hampshire crowd that it is well past time to put country before party.
“We’ve tried the other way for too long,” Flake said. “We’ve done our worst. Now it’s time for us to do our best.”
Presidential run for Sen. Flake?
Flake’s speech Friday at a Politics & Eggs event at St. Anselm College has heightened speculation about his political future. He is not seeking re-election to the Senate.
The 23-year-old Politics & Eggs series, hosted by the New Hampshire Institute of Politics in and the New England Council, aims “to provide New Hampshire and New England business leaders with a chance to meet with major party presidential candidates” and considers itself “a must-stop on the presidential campaign trail.”
Flake, 55, repeatedly has said a presidential campaign is not in his plans but also that he has not ruled one out. He more recently explicitly called for a traditionally conservative Republican to challenge Trump in the 2020 Republican primaries “just to remind Republicans what Republicans stand for,” such as limited government and economic freedom, free trade and immigration.
When a member of the audience bluntly asked if he will run for president, Flake jokingly responded, “Next question” before repeating his standard line about not ruling it out.
“I hope that someone does run in the Republican primary, somebody to challenge the president,” he said. “I think that the Republicans want to be reminded what it means to be a traditional, decent Republican and what the party stands for.”
After his remarks, which received a standing ovation, Flake was asked if a Republican would be better off challenging Trump as an independent or third-party candidate rather than through the GOP primaries.
“I hope that somebody runs, like I said, as a Republican because I think Republicans are yearning to hear a traditional conservative message,” Flake said. “But in the end, … I’m sure, we’ll have an independent challenger as well.”
Flake takes on President Trump
Flake repeatedly has taken Trump to task over the president’s sustained attacks on the media and on Democrats.
Flake’s over-arching theme has been that Trump’s behavior cannot be normalized.
“We must turn away from this brand of poisonous politics, the kind of poison that has the president slinging insults like a bad comic at a cheap roast,” Flake said Friday. “Yes, the pendulum swings, thank goodness, and the people themselves will show us the way out of here.
“If this sounds like a call to new politics, it is. But it is just as much a call to the old politics, the best traditions of America, of true leadership and vision, of Lincoln’s malice toward none and charity for all,” he said. “Let’s take the high ground again.”
After the speech, Trevor Van Niel, a political-science student at New England College in Henniker, N.H., gave Flake high marks for putting the country’s interest ahead of his party’s.
“It was certainly great to hear that there is still civility left in our national leadership,” he said. “It was very interesting to hear how he articulated his side, and the party’s positions on things, as opposed to what we hear coming from the executive branch.
“It’s just reassuring because it is so easy in these times to lose your head to think, ‘What’s going on with this country?’ ” Van Niel said.
Flake’s New Hampshire remarks followed a Thursday speech at the National Press Club in the nation’s capital where he again strongly condemned Trump.
“It is nonetheless our obligation to assess the condition of our politics, to mitigate and repair the damage because, as we are discovering and as we will discover for years to come, there is no damage like the damage a president can do,” Flake said in his Thursday appearance.
In places, Flake’s speech Friday in New Hampshire was word-for-word what he said at the National Press Club.
Flake already has paid a big price for standing up to Trump: In October, he abandoned his 2018 re-election campaign after concluding he was so out of step with the pro-Trump voters that dominate Arizona’s Republican primary that winning renomination for the Senate would be difficult if not impossible.
Still, Flake might find a receptive audience in New Hampshire, a state known for its libertarian leanings that allows independent voters to participate in its Republican primary.
Unfavorable numbers for Trump
A New Hampshire Institute of Politics poll conducted last month found that 61.5% of New Hampshire voters have an unfavorable view of Trump, who returns Monday to New Hampshire for the first time since 2016 as part of a trip that will focus on the state’s opioid crisis. Trump’s speech could include a demand for the death penalty for drug traffickers.
Trump was viewed favorably by 35.8% while 2.7% said they had no opinion.
The telephone poll, conducted Feb. 21 to 23, had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.7 percentage points.
More specifically, the poll of 428 registered New Hampshire voters found that 97.7% of Democrats and 61.4% of independents have an unfavorable view of Trump. But less than a quarter — 23.2% — of New Hampshire Republicans hold a negative view of him.
St. Anselm’s Politics & Eggs series has hosted Trump, 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and 2016 also-rans such as GOP Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida and Clinton’s Democratic rival Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Flake’s appearance Friday was the first Politics & Eggs of 2018.
McCain was a Politics & Eggs speaker on May 10, 1999, in advance of his 2000 presidential bid in which he won the New Hampshire primary but lost the GOP nomination to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush. McCain won the New Hampshire primary again in 2008 on his way to clinching that year’s nomination.
McCain gave Flake his first taste of the New Hampshire presidential campaign trail in November 2007 when he included Flake on a four-day swing through the Granite State. Flake helped sell McCain’s anti-pork record to the state’s voters.
“It’s a slice of Americana,” Flake said of New Hampshire at the time.
On Friday, Flake called that campaigning with McCain “some of my best political memories.”