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How Sen. Flake's Decision Not To Seek Re-Election Will Impact Arizona

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

When Arizona Senator Jeff Flake announced yesterday that he's not running for re-election, he explained that to win a Republican primary, he would have to campaign as something other than what he is.

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JEFF FLAKE: It is clear at this moment that a traditional conservative who believes in limited government and free markets, who is devoted to free trade, who is pro-immigration has a narrower and narrower path to nomination in the Republican Party, the party that has so long defined itself by its belief in those things.

SIEGEL: Senator Flake says the party has yielded to mischaracterizing or misunderstanding our problems and giving into the impulse to scapegoat and belittle. Well, we wondered how the tension that Flake described is seen in Arizona where he would have faced a primary challenge and where the senior Republican senator, John McCain's, health makes it unlikely that he will serve a full six-year term.

Joining us now is Arizona Republican political consultant Doug Cole, who has worked in the Arizona State Legislature, the governor's office and on several statewide campaigns. Welcome to the program.

DOUG COLE: Thank you, Robert. It's good to be here.

SIEGEL: And first, does Jeff Flake describe his own political dilemma correctly?

COLE: He absolutely does, Robert. Jeff Flake has been in political trouble for the last number of years. And especially after President Trump was elected, he has positioned himself as sort of an anti-Trump voice here in the state of Arizona. President Trump is very popular within the Republican base in the state of Arizona. It has been a political problem for him literally since Trump set foot in the Oval Office.

SIEGEL: People often distinguish between a party's activist base and the electorate at large. I mean, is the GOP primary base in Arizona representative of Republican voters in Arizona?

COLE: Well, let's look at the election cycle that we're going to be in, Robert. We're in a gubernatorial cycle here in Arizona where our turnout is - really about 51 percent of the voters will turn out versus a presidential turnout of about 74 percent. So what that does is it means that the gubernatorial cycle is going to be 11 to 14 points Republican advantage. And the Trump voters are very motivated voters, and President Trump is enjoying right now in our current polling about a 74 percent approval rating amongst Republican voters. And those are really strong winds to be sailing against by Senator Flake.

SIEGEL: Let's say that some of the primaries in Arizona - the Republican primaries - turn out to be pretty nasty and the winners are from the right end of the political party. Does that open up any possibility to Democrats, or is the state just too republican for them?

COLE: Oh, I think that it will open up a sliver of hope for the Democrats if the wrong candidate makes it out of the Republican primaries. I think that millions of dollars will be spent in Arizona in that case. But remember, Robert; there's not one statewide elected official in Arizona that's a Democrat.

SIEGEL: On the other hand, the presidential vote total last year - it wasn't like Mississippi or Alabama. It was about a five-point margin for Donald Trump. It's not colossal.

COLE: Actually, Robert, it was only 3.5 points. It is doable. And of course with a 52-member Senate - Republican Senate, this race is going to be watched very closely.

SIEGEL: Do you get a sense that the party has really changed, that we're into a new era, that Donald Trump may not be the leader of it but he epitomizes a new Republicanism that leaves behind old-fashioned conservatives like - well, like Senator Flake?

COLE: The party has changed. It has turned into a very inward-looking party with a lot of litmus tests, and immigration is one of the litmus tests. And I don't think that that really syncs with the traditional ideals of the Republican Party.

SIEGEL: It seems, though, that those ideals are perhaps not ideals for most Republican voters these days.

COLE: We should be the party of free trade, of limited government, an all-inclusive, big-tent party. And that's not where the party has gone. I think that, as Senator Flake said yesterday, maybe it's time for a reset.

SIEGEL: Well, I hear what your view is of the state of Republican politics. But if you were in your role as a consultant, if I were running for office statewide as a Republican in a primary in Arizona, what do you tell me, stand up and say we have to change the tone of government and act differently and we have to be more open to immigrants? Or do you tell me, you better get with the program here and be supportive of what's going on in the White House?

COLE: Well, in this cycle, you're going to have to get onboard with what's going on in the White House. If a candidate wants to be successful, that's what they're going to have to do.

SIEGEL: I'm going to have to go change my commercials right now now that you've told me.

COLE: (Laughter).

SIEGEL: Doug Cole of the Arizona public affairs firm HighGround. Thanks for talking with us today.

COLE: Robert, have a great day.

(SOUNDBITE OF BENJAMIN BOOKER SONG, "VIOLENT SHIVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.