Yesterday, Judah Waxelbaum was canvassing for Sen. Jeff Flake’s 2018 reelection campaign. Today, Waxelbaum watched as Flake announced that he wouldn’t be seeking re-election, during a speech in which he condemned “the casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals” in a pointed attack on President Trump.
“I have decided that I will be better able to represent the people of Arizona and to better serve my country and my conscience by freeing myself from the political considerations that consume far too much bandwidth and would cause me to compromise far too many principles,” Flake said.
Waxelbaum, a member of the ASU College Republicans and a political science freshman, was shocked by Flake’s decision not to run for re-election, but not by the reasoning behind it.
“Senator Flake has always put his own personal beliefs before party, so if he truly believes that he’d have to compromise what was important to him, his principles, it makes sense he wouldn’t seek reelection,” Waxelbaum said.
Ryan Cloughley, a political science senior and member of the ASU Young Democrats, called the speech “scathing” but questioned Flake’s record of voting in line with Trump’s agenda, 89.8 percent of the time.
“Why claim that he doesn’t want to normalize this when he played a part in it?” Cloughley said. “His speech is brave. His actions are not.”
During his speech, Flake urged his colleagues to represent the American people and rise above the political fray.
“We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country – the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms, and institutions; the flagrant disregard for truth or decency, the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have all been elected to serve,” Flake said.
Deedra Abboud, a Democratic candidate running for Flake's seat, said she is entering politics because of the same issues Flake raised in his speech.
“I think what has happened is our elected leaders no longer feel free to stand up for what’s right … without bowing to a party line,” Abboud said. “In order to get the nomination from the Republican Party, he would have had to conform in a way that went against his moral fiber.”
Abboud said the country needs to reflect on Flake’s speech.
“The real question is not whether he’s standing up by bowing out,” Abboud said. “The real question is why are we allowing our elected leaders to not feel free to represent us?”
Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz) commented on Flake's retirement in an email to The State Press.
"It’s been an honor to know and serve with Jeff. He is a man of integrity and a statesman who is true to his convictions – an Arizonan through and through." Sinema said in the statement. "I wish he and Cheryl and their family the very best.”
Flake’s speech from the Senate floor is the latest installment in the story of the tumultuous relationship between Trump and Flake, which dates back to Flake’s refusal to endorse Donald Trump as the Republican nominee.
On August 1, Flake took his dissent a step further and published Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle, a book which David Brooks of the New York Times called “a thoughtful defense of traditional conservatism and a thorough assault on the way Donald Trump is betraying it."
Trump has publicly denounced Flake, both from behind a lectern and from his Twitter account.
“Weak on borders, weak on crime, so I won’t talk about him,” Trump said to a crowd of thousands at a Phoenix rally in August, referring to Flake without using his name.
In a tweet, the President called Flake “toxic” and a “non-factor in the Senate."
Flake responded today in his speech on the Senate floor.
“If I have been critical, it not because I relish criticizing the behavior of the president of the United States,” Flake said. “If I have been critical, it is because I believe that it is my obligation to do so, as a matter of duty and conscience.”
ASU Republicans wonder if those critiques are fairly founded.
Jennifer Custis, a political science and education junior and president of the ASU College Republicans, paused and considered the question before answering.
“I’m being careful of what I say,” Custis said. “I understand where he’s coming from, from his point of view and the way Flake looks at conservatism."
As for whether Custis herself agreed with Flake’s assessment of Trump’s behavior of president, she declined to comment.
Flake will serve out the remainder of his term, which ends in Jan. 2019. The Arizona Republic reported that Flake has ruled out an independent run for Senate. When asked about a 2020 presidential campaign Flake told CNN's Jake Tapper "I won't go there. That's a long time away."
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a statement from Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema in the 13th paragraph.