By J.T. Lain / Cronkite News
WASHINGTON – What do you do when you are listed as one of the most unpopular people in your home state? If you’re a U.S. senator from Arizona, apparently you stick to your guns.
A poll in July by the website Morning Consult looked at the popularity of each senator in his or her home state and put Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake in the bottom three – trailing only Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Part of the explanation could lie in another Morning Consult poll that shows Arizona Republicans think highly of President Donald Trump. Flake has made a name for himself as a staunch never-Trump Republican, and McCain annoys party regulars by sometimes voting against the GOP.
So what have both senators done since that poll was released?
McCain sided with Democrats, becoming one of the key votes against the GOP’s long-cherished goal of repealing Obamacare, and Flake wrote a scathing book criticizing his fellow Republicans and Trump.
Released on Aug. 1, “Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and A Return to Principle” details Flake’s disappointment with what he says is his party’s rejection of traditional conservative values. Flake did not hold back on his criticisms of Trump, saying Republicans who support him are “in denial.”
McCain, who was diagnosed recently with brain cancer, made a dramatic return to the Senate floor last month and gave a biting speech that chastised Republicans and Democrats alike for hyper-partisanship that has hobbled Congress.
Two days later, he was the deciding vote against the “skinny repeal” of portions of Obamacare. Arizona Republicans have not forgiven him for it.
“McCain needs to stop acting like a spoiled brat,” Tonopah resident Doug Larson said in a letter published by the Arizona Republic. “McCain chose to abandon his party, his president and all of the majority of voters in Arizona.”
Arizona political strategist Jason Rose said Flake’s “decision to keep poking the president in the eye … is confounding to his base.”
Rose said the first half of the year has been “dispiriting” to Republicans, who control both Congress and the White House for the first time in seven years but have been unable to make advances on health care, tax reform or government spending.
But at a time when party unity is needed most, Flake and McCain have doubled down on their contrarian comments.
McCain may not be too concerned about any backlash for opposing the president – his seat is safe until 2022, and his cancer is potentially fatal. But Flake needs to walk a tightrope in his 2018 re-election bid, when he is likely to face challenges from the left and right.
Kyle Kondik, the managing editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said Flake “has a very conservative voting record, he’s not a moderate.”
“It’s tricky for Flake to oppose Trump while not moderating his voting record. Flake could alienate some Republican voters without attracting any Democrat voters,” Kondik said.
And he said Flake runs the risk of failing to attract more independents than the number of hard-line conservatives he would lose if he moderates his positions.
“I give him a lot of credit for speaking his conscience but it’s not hard to imagine him as a man without a party right now. Republican base voters are pretty approving of the president,” said Kondik.
Arizona has another reason to disapprove of its two Republican senators; the state is turning blue, or at least purple.
“Arizona is a state where Hilary Clinton did better than Barack Obama,” Kondik noted.
As Democrats are unlikely to ever vote for McCain or Flake, the two senators are facing an uphill battle. But, if the Morning Consult poll is any indication, neither man appears interested in winning a popularity contest.
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