How would Flake fare in N.H.? Strategists weigh in

  • Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., speaks at the Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit, Monday, Oct. 1, 2018, in Boston, in front of a photo of him being confronted in an elevator Friday at the Capitol in Washington by two women who said they were sexual assault victims. They were imploring him to change his mind after he announced he would support Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm) Mary Schwalm

Monitor staff
Published: 10/1/2018 9:15:12 PM

When Sen. Jeff Flake forced the delay of a final confirmation vote on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and ushered in an FBI investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct, it proved momentous. For Democrats, it was a breath of bipartisanship. For Republicans, a reckless capitulation to the other party. 

But as the Arizona senator touched down in New Hampshire on Monday amid mounting 2020 presidential primary buzz, some Republican strategists are asking whether Flake’s action during the Kavanaugh nomination process will even matter.

It could cement his reputation as a peacemaker, the last defender of the dying era of civility, a narrative he pitched to an audience at St. Anselm College Monday evening. Or it could further irritate Republicans who saw a safe bet to transform the Supreme Court in Kavanaugh, and a careless and a self-centered disrupter in Flake. 

More likely, Republican analysts say, it won’t change anyone’s mind. 

“Anybody who says they know what this process is gonna mean in the end doesn’t know,” said Tom Rath, former New Hampshire attorney general and longtime political strategist. “Because this is like trying to pick up a greased pig. Every time you think you got hold of it, it squeaks out – it goes in another direction.”

For Flake, last week’s behavior – featuring viral confrontations from citizens, pained facial expressions and an 11th hour decision to cut a deal with key Democrats – could prove as a double-edged sword for a primary challenge, analysts say. It could boost his profile, but potentially for the wrong reasons. 

For some on the right, like Kimberly Morin, a conservative independent and author of the right-leaning political blog NH Political Buzz, Flake’s antics are irredeemable – and unforgettable. To Morin, Flake’s antics in the Judiciary Committee last week solidified the reputation he already had among conservatives as an ideological lightweight.

“Hard core conservatives aren’t really happy with Flake for a slew of other reasons – it’s not just this,” she said. “So this just adds on – it piles on.”

On the other side is Fergus Cullen, a former state party chairman and “never Trump” Republican just looking for a counterweight to the president, however imperfect the vessel. 

“There are at least a significant number of Republicans (myself near the front of the line) who are eager to send a message – we are disgusted by this administration – and we are just waiting for a vehicle to emerge,” Cullen said Monday. “Literally winning – getting more votes than the incumbent – does not have to be the goal.”

Many say the deciding factor is where the senator comes out on a final confirmation vote. Flake has said he supports Kavanaugh – and voted him out of the committee – but is awaiting the results of an FBI investigation, set to conclude at the end of this week. 

To Republicans, voting no and bucking what for Republicans is a near-consensus choice on the Supreme Court could be the ultimate tactical error, strategists said. Whatever allies he makes on the left and middle would not likely stick by his side in 2020, many warned.

“When it comes to Supreme Court judges of the federal judiciary, Republicans of all wings of the party are pretty much on the same page,” said Ford O’Connell, a former aide to the McCain presidential campaign in 2008. “… And I don’t see the Democratic party base, even in a presidential primary, giving him the time of day.”

Or as Morin put it: “He gave (Democrats) what they wanted, and then they moved the goal posts. It’s Republicans that he’d be trying to win votes over with, and this would have a big play in that I think.”

Former New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman Steve Duprey doesn’t think Kavanaugh will be a deciding factor in whether Republicans back a challenge to the president. The economy and perceived direction of the country have much more sway, he said. But that might change, he added, if Flake and other senators voted no.

“If this nomination were to fail, then I think obviously that would be certainly more remembered by Republicans,” he said. “The president would remind them.”

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