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WASHINGTON — Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona stunned Washington on Tuesday by announcing that he will not run for re-election next year, expressing dismay with President Donald Trump and the direction of the Republican Party.
"We must stop pretending that the conduct of some in our executive branch are normal. They are not normal," Flake said in a passionate speech on the Senate floor aimed clearly at Trump.
"I have children and grandchildren to answer to, and so, Mr. President, I will not be complicit and silent," Flake continued. "When the next generation asks us, why didn’t you do something, why didn’t you speak up, what are we going to say?"
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The White House wasted little time hitting back, with Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders dismissing Flake's criticism as "petty," and saying retirement was “probably a good move" because of what she called the senator's "lack of support" in Arizona.
With his speech, like his book earlier this year in which he warned that conservatism has been "compromised by ... celebrity and authoritarianism," Flake seemed intent on putting himself on the record for posterity by speaking out against Trump.
He's not alone in the GOP. Hours earlier, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee said he had lost faith in Trump's ability to rise to the presidency. A few days earlier, former President George W. Bush implied Trump had emboldened bigots. And shortly before that, Sen. John McCain of Arizona suggested that Trump would "rather find scapegoats than solve problems."
All of them are insulated from the need to win re-election, and now so is Flake, raising the question of how a viable Republican can challenge Trump in today's GOP.
Flake faced a potentially tough primary against former state Sen. Kelli Ward, a firebrand conservative who is backed by former Trump strategist Steve Bannon.
"There may not be a place for a Republican like me in the current Republican climate or the current Republican Party," Flake told The Arizona Republic.
The president made a point of dissing Flake at a rally in Arizona in August, saying, “Nobody wants me to talk about your other senator, who's weak on borders, weak on crime."
The next battle in the ongoing GOP civil war tipped off immediately, with Trump allies like Breitbart News declaring victory at Flake's retirement and establishment-defenders gearing up to take down Ward.
Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots, which hails from the Trump wing, called Flake's announcement "the best decision he ever made as senator."
On the other side, the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., vowed: "Steve Bannon's handpicked candidate, conspiracy-theorist Kelli Ward, will not be the Republican nominee for this Senate seat in 2018."
So far this year, the Trump faction has been winning. Sen. Luther Strange, R-Ala., lost a primary to insurgent Roy Moore, while Corker and Flake are ceding their seats.
"This is part of that wave," said Ken Cuccinelli, a former Virginia attorney general who is head of the Senate Conservatives Fund. "We get to change Washington by changing the people we send there."
Flake, an ideological conservative who challenged Trump's style while supporting much of his policy, tried to straddle the divide in his party, but ultimately was consumed by it.
“He’s sort of in the worst of both worlds,” said Andy Barr, a Democratic strategist in Arizona. “Moderates have come to believe that he’ll vote for them when he won’t, and Trump people think he’s the antichrist for some reason.”
Earlier this year, Flake published, "Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle," which drew on conservative icon Barry Goldwater while bashing Trump's brand of politics.
"Jeff Flake is as decent and thoughtful of a man that's ever been in the U.S. Senate, and no one can question his willingness to put country over party," said Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, who is in charge of the Senate GOP's campaign arm. "Arizona will stay in Republican hands after the upcoming election."
Democrats had put Flake's seat in the No. 2 spot on their target list in next year’s midterm elections, but it’s not immediately clear what Flake’s retirement means for their chances.
Open seats tend to be more vulnerable, but polls showed that Flake was deeply unpopular in Arizona, and therefore potentially vulnerable.
While Arizona Democrats have lined up behind Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, the big question is if other Republicans will now jump into the race. Rep. Martha McSally is sitting on a robust war chest, while state Treasurer Jeff DeWitt, who is also said to be eyeing the seat, has ties to Trump's wing.