About six hours after taking to the Senate floor to announce his retirement and deliver a thundering indictment of his party, his president, and his country’s political culture, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake called me from his cell phone. He sounded tired.
“It’s been quite a day,” he said, sighing, and chuckling, and then sighing again.
For Flake, the day had begun with an interview in the Arizona Republic, in which he shared the remarkable news that he would not seek reelection next year. “There may not be a place for a Republican like me in the current Republican climate or the current Republican Party,” he told the paper. Shortly after the story was published, Flake delivered a righteously indignant speech from the floor of the Senate in which he railed against President Trump’s “reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior,” and the partisans who try to defend and justify it. “I have children and grandchildren to answer to, and so, Mr. President, I will not be complicit,” he said. From there, he’d been hustled from one interview to the next, with barely a chance to catch his breath. Now, with the day winding down, he seemed to be in a more reflective mood.
Flake told me he started thinking seriously about bowing out of his reelection bid a few weeks ago. He was facing a well-funded primary challenger and a wrathful revolt from the Republican base over his public criticism of President Trump. The polls looked bad; the fundraising was daunting. And the more he grappled with what it would take to win, the more he realized he didn’t have it in him.