If you’re wondering what Jeff Flake is thinking, rest assured, you’re not alone. But the speculation that hovers over the Arizona senator predates the eleventh-hour move he made that upended, if only temporarily, the contentious confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh. To understand what the 55-year-old is thinking, you need to look at what he has done in the past, what he did Friday — and what he’s doing next.
Flake, who will retire after his first term in the Senate ends in January, will spend Monday afternoon talking about the future of the Republican Party at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics on the campus of St. Anselm College. This will be his second trip this year to the first-in-the-nation-presidential-primary state.
It’s always buzz-worthy when a well-known lawmaker visits the Granite State, especially on the verge of the 2020 presidential primary season. But the timing of Flake’s trip is especially eyebrow raising. Beltway chatter about the senator’s presidential prospects are at an all-time high thanks to his unexpected decision to help vote Kavanaugh out of the Judiciary Committee — but then refuse to back him on the Senate floor until the FBI conducts a brief investigation into the sexual assault allegations brought by Christine Blasey Ford from back in their high school days.
Flake says he regularly contemplates leaving the Republican party, but he isn’t ready to.
While Flake continues to instigate speculation as one of the #NeverTrump Republicans who could be potential challengers to the sitting president, what the senator says and what he does are more at odds than ever. In fact, though he’s set to ruminate on the future of the Republican Party this week, he told Medium on Sept. 18 that he regularly contemplates jumping ship.
“You think about it all the time, but this has been my party my whole life,” Flake says on the sidewalk outside the Senate Russell Office Building the week before the hearings heard round the world. “It’s still, I think, the party that most closely approximates, or can get back to at least, conservative principles, so I’m not ready to abandon it yet.”
Flake won’t reveal his personal red line, which could be because he doesn’t know it himself. Though he effectively pumped the brakes on Kavanaugh, he has also said he will almost certainly vote to confirm him. Last year, he supported all of Trump’s most controversial Cabinet nominees, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. And, although earlier this year he threatened to hold up the president’s lower court nominations over the ongoing trade war, he has ended up voting to support the far right swing of the nation’s judiciary.
Flake and Trump are ideologically — though not temperamentally — well-matched. Flake may cringe at the president’s style and tone, but when it comes to policy there’s barely any daylight between them, with the exception of certain immigration and trade issues. The senator has voted in favor of legislation backed or proposed by the White House close to 84 percent of the time, according to the independent, data journalism website FiveThirtyEight.
After initial opposition and then indecision, he announced he would support the Republican tax overhaul bill passed last December. And, perhaps most memorably, he backed a GOP measure in July 2017 that would have permanently gutted the heart of former President Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act. The repeal effort memorably failed after a vote from his mentor, the late Sen. John McCain.
Flake first criticized Trump-the-candidate in 2015 for disparaging the reputation of his mentor John McCain.
And after throwing in the towel last fall when he didn’t see a viable path to winning his GOP primary in Arizona, becoming a punch line for the triumphant president who danced on his grave to raucous cheers at rallies, Flake is at a crossroads.
When he officially exits the Senate in January, he has a decision to make: Take on Trump in a GOP presidential primary, drop the Republican mantle altogether and launch a third-party bid, or sit out the contest altogether — possibly setting his sights on becoming yet another cable news talking head.
His decision on the Kavanaugh vote — and his indecision, more broadly — could be the decisive factor.