How Jeff Flake Became the Most Unpopular Senator in America

It wasn't easy dethroning Mitch McConnell as America's least favorite Senator, but Flake has done that in just three short months, a new poll out Monday reveals — and his fall from rising-star grace is not quite the head-scratcher you might think.

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It wasn't easy dethroning Mitch McConnell as America's least favorite Senator, but Jeff Flake has done that in just three short months, a new poll out Monday reveals — and his fall from rising-star grace is not quite the head-scratcher you might think. In November, Flake won his Arizona Senate seat by almost 5 percentage points, but it was a lot closer than "the double-digit lead he held earlier in the year," ABC News reported at the time. Flake, a popular six-time Congressman who won previous elections with as much as 74 percent of the vote, strode into the seat of former Minority Whip Jon Kyl as a face of turnaround for the state and the Republican party. But, oh, how the mighty can fall in a time of guns, immigration, and constant polling.

The Numbers

Public Policy Polling, in their latest survey on the fallout of the recent vote on gun legislation, explains just how much people don't like Mr. Flake:

Just 32% of voters approve of him to 51% who disapprove and that -19 net approval rating makes him the most unpopular sitting Senator we've polled on, taking that label from Mitch McConnell.

Since December, it was hard to imagine anyone unseating McConnell because, according to PPP and despite the Kentucky Senator's internal numbers, the Senate Minority Leader was always' the old curmudgeon who represented the laughable state of America's hatred toward Congress. But whether it's because McConnell played the Nixonian sympathy card or not, that's changed. Polls upon polls confirm that everyone still hates Congress, and PPP is still very accurate despite its occasional trolling and admitted lefty bias. So what happened to the junior Senator from Arizona? According to PPP's polling, conducted April 25-26 in the aftermath of the gun vote that killed legislation on background checks, its blowback — Democrats and independent voters have really flaked on Flake:

Considering how partisan our government has become, it's not surprising that Democrats in a relatively red state would have strong feelings against a Republican Senator. But, there's a big reason why independents don't like the guy.

The Gun Vote

Did you catch that 58 percent disapproval from independents? Now look at the 71 percent of independents polled who support background checks:

So, there might be a correlation there. Flake, unlike fellow Senator John McCain, voted to filibuster the background check bill. And PPP's poll shows that Arizonans trust McCain more on guns:

But ... a Washington Post/Pew poll found that only 47 percent — less than a majority — of Americans felt "angry" or "disappointed" gun control failed. If the American public didn't feel that strongly about the gun bill failing, then Flake's vote didn't really matter, did it? Well, not exactly.

Flake's Flip-Flop

In the days following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, Flake vowed not to be swayed by the National Rifle Association. He had an A rating from the gun lobby at the time, and that made him a unicorn of sorts — a Republican Senator not backing down. "I was troubled by that proposal, greatly troubled by that kind of Washington mandate, federal involvement in local schools," he said in January of the NRA's insistence to put more guns in schools.

And in the days leading to his eventual vote to filibuster background checks, Flake told a mother of a man killed in the Aurora shootings that he still stood by her: "While we may not agree on every solution, strengthening background checks is something we can agree on." That's in his own handwriting.

Flake represents the same state where former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot. He recounted to The New York Times an encounter with Giffords after he said he could not change his vote to join the gun control crowd when it mattered. "I said I was sorry," Flake told The Times's Jennifer Steinahuer, "looking despondent." 

He was probably on to something there. The Post poll points out  that while some people don't really care that background checks failed, PPP shows that Senators Kelly Ayotte, Lisa Murkowski, Mark Begich, and Rob Portman all saw their approval ratings drops after the filibuster vote.

Does It Get Better?

The PPP poll focused mainly on guns and gun policy. But Flake is part of the so-called "Gang of Eigh" that introduced an immigration reform bill on April 18 — a legislative proposal that already has its fair share of conservative critics, and in just 11 days. Flake, in particular, is already being ripped apart for itThat probably isn't good for Flake's approval ratings. 

You know what else doesn't help? Conservative pundits, who aren't fans of the bill and who get a direct line into the ears of Arizonans during drive time, taking it out on Flake. Glenn Beck told Flake on his radio show last Thursday:

[Y]ou are talking to me on this issue like I’m a third grader. Like I don’t understand that we do need to do something on the border ... Could you please, without doing Washington double speak that sounds like John McCain from 1987, tell me how we are actually going to deal with this ... And there are not a lot of people that can come on the show and take this line of fire and do it with grace. You haven’t convinced me. But thank you for coming on.

Apparently, vintage John McCain is not a good thing in Republican eyes. And the right-leaning National Review reported that conservative critics think Flake and the Gang might be (shocker) selfishly acting in their best interest instead of doing their jobs. "Conservative critics of the Gang of Eight’s immigration-reform bill worry that the bill’s Republican backers, well meaning as they might be, are putting politics before policy by letting their desire to win over Hispanic voters blind them to what’s actually in the bill," writes the NRO's Andrew Stiles, insisting that the immigration deal doesn't do adhere to an "enforcement first" (a.k.a. more border security strategy).

It's possible that Jeff Flake can't do any worse with Democrats and independents, but conservatives still like this guy — for now.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.