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Is Jeff Flake Arizona’s Next John McCain?

Arizona’s Rep. Jeff Flake is an amnesty true believer, and he may soon be a senator.

By W. James Antle III | April 26, 2011

Arizona is at the forefront of the fight over illegal immigration. Arguably no state has been more affected by porous borders and the federal government’s policy of selective immigration enforcement. Certainly no state has done as much to counteract this non-enforcement, both at the ballot box and in the state legislature, most recently with legislation that made Arizona the target of a Justice Department lawsuit.

So how is it possible that Arizona might elect two U.S. senators who have led the charge in favor of amnesty for illegal immigrants? And how is it that both of those senators could be Republicans? Almost everyone knows that John McCain, the five-term Republican who has represented Arizona in the Senate since Barry Goldwater retired, is amnesty’s GOP champion. But next year’s Senate race in the Grand Canyon State is likely to give him some company.

The incumbent is Jon Kyl, the number two Republican in the Senate. Kyl, who is retiring, had a conservative overall record on immigration. On the report card put out by the restrictionist group NumbersUSA, he received a B over the course of his career and a B-plus for his recent voting record. But even Kyl voted for the 2006 and 2007 amnesty bills out of loyalty to McCain, after offering a moderately more pro-enforcement alternative of his own.


Congressman Jeff Flake, who represents Arizona’s Sixth District, is the only major Republican running for Kyl’s Senate seat. He has already raised over $1 million at this early stage of the race, scaring off potential competitors. Flake is in many respects an impeccable conservative, especially on fiscal policy. Yet according to NumbersUSA, Flake has a worse recent record on immigration than even McCain. In fact, his grade is worse than all but two members of Arizona’s congressional delegation—both liberal Democrats.

Unlike Kyl, Flake is an amnesty true believer. He has sponsored or voted for pardoning illegal immigrants at least six times. Flake teamed with Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) in introducing the STRIVE Act, which would have given amnesty to the overwhelming majority of illegal immigrants present in the country, subject to the usual dubious conditions, while creating a generous new guest-workers program.

Flake opposed Proposition 200, a state ballot initiative that required proof of U.S. citizenship before voting or collecting certain government benefits. The referendum passed with 56 percent of the vote, including 47 percent of Hispanics. Flake also opposed SB 1070, the immigration-enforcement bill that thrust Arizona to the center of the national debate and rescued Gov. Jan Brewer’s re-election campaign the way Proposition 187 saved California Gov. Pete Wilson 16 years before. According to one poll, 88 percent of Arizona Republicans favor SB 1070.

On paper, it would seem then that Flake is vulnerable on this issue. But the congressman is already emulating John McCain in backing away from his past support of amnesty. He voted against the DREAM Act—which would have provided permanent resident status for some illegal immigrants—during the lame-duck session last year. He opposed the federal lawsuit against SB 1070. And he has made the proper enforcement-first noises in his primary campaign to date, going so far as to tell Mother Jones that he didn’t think any path to citizenship could pass until the country got serious about border security.

One Republican who knows how difficult it will be to beat Flake on the basis of immigration alone is Stan Barnes. Now president of a consulting group in Arizona, he served in both houses of the state legislature before challenging Flake for his U.S. House seat in the 2004 Republican primary. Barnes made Flake’s amnesty advocacy the centerpiece of his campaign.

In a debate held in Mesa by the East Valley Tribune, Barnes called for strict enforcement of immigration laws. “With amnesty light, you are not going to solve the problem,” Barnes said, taking a jab at Flake’s STRIVE bill. “The problem is at the border.” “If you say we’ve just got to enforce the law, that means Chandler-style roundups,” Flake countered, referencing a local incident where many Hispanic Arizonans complained they were racially profiled by police. “That’s what enforcing the law is.”

The issue proved potent enough for Barnes to break 40 percent of the vote against Flake, but not enough for him to win. Randy Graf lost a similar primary challenge to Arizona Congressman Jim Kolbe that year. “Immigration is one of the top three issues right now,” Barnes says. “But the total package of all the issues a candidate runs on is usually more powerful than any one issue.”

Barnes nevertheless cautions against assuming that Flake will simply be able to copy McCain’s 2010 Senate primary campaign against restrictionist former-Congressman J.D. Hayworth. “John McCain’s not a good example,” he says. “He occupies a political space all by himself.” Jesse Hernandez, president of the Arizona Republican Latino Association, agrees. “I don’t think you can assume that Jeff Flake can do something just because John McCain could,” Hernandez says.

Yet Flake is in many respects better situated than McCain. McCain used earmarks and government spending as cudgels with which to beat Hayworth, who was guilty of some Bush-era Republican excesses. Flake has long been a thorn in the side of GOP appropriators and supported a moratorium on earmarks before it was fashionable to do so. More significantly, he voted against the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, No Child Left Behind, and the TARP bailout. Flake also opposed the Sarbanes-Oxley regulations, giving him one of the best limited-government records in Congress.

Flake voted for the Iraq War, but was much more chastened by the results than McCain has been. He was skeptical of the surge, though he ultimately declined to vote against a non-binding anti-surge resolution because he was “loath to assert Congress in the chain of command.” Flake told the Arizona Republic that the conflict was becoming “too sectarian” for additional U.S. troops to make much difference and that democracy in Iraq was up to Iraqis. “We can’t want it more than they do much longer,” he said. Flake opposed bipartisan sanctions legislation on Iran and has advocated lifting the trade embargo against Cuba.

“He’s a conservative libertarian,” says one Arizona conservative in reference to Flake. “Which isn’t as bad as [supporting comprehensive immigration reform] because you’re a squishy moderate.” The only issue besides immigration and foreign policy where Flake’s relative libertarianism might cause him trouble with the base is gays in the military. Flake voted to rescind the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy late last year. He has also picked up some heat for missing a close cap-and-trade vote when the Democrats controlled Congress, but the bill went nowhere in the Senate and no one suggests the Arizonan favors it on policy grounds.

Flake’s biggest advantage over McCain: he doesn’t even have a J.D. Hayworth running against him. When Congressman Trent Franks, a conservative amnesty opponent, bowed out of the race, it may have cleared the field for Flake. Jesse Hernandez, whose organization supports SB 1070, thinks Franks had a shot at beating Flake. Most others I talked to were skeptical, arguing Franks had a lower profile outside his district.

“We have to get someone to run against him!” exclaimed one immigration hardliner about Flake. But the options are dwindling. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has given conflicting statements about a Senate campaign, but few observers believe he will run. State Senate President Russell Pearce, the author of some of Arizona’s toughest immigration-enforcement measures, is another possibility. But sources in Arizona think Pearce’s wife would not want the 63-year-old to go to Washington. A liberal group is also running a recall campaign against him at the state level.

The only poll of Republican primary voters taken so far showed Arpaio in the lead with 21 percent, Flake in second place at 16.8 percent, and Hayworth taking third place with 16.6 percent, within the margin of error. Retired Congressman John Shadegg received 12 percent and Congressman Ben Quayle, son of the former vice president, rounded out the field with 6 percent. A small plurality was undecided.

TAC June 2011 issue [1]The existence of that single poll showing a wide-open race may not be enough to entice any of these Republicans into the primary and does little to challenge the conventional wisdom that Flake already has it in the bag. “I think it’s Flake’s to lose,” says Hernandez. Republicans don’t much fear the possible Democratic field, other than Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who is still recovering from gunshot wounds sustained in Jared Lee Loughner’s shooting rampage. “Arizona is a natural Republican state,”says Barnes. “Recent political events, from the anti-Obama feeling to the health care debacle, have made it more so.”

In a sense, Jeff Flake is the right candidate for such a political climate. He’s a Republican budget-cutter who has walked the walk when it has come to voting against big government—even when that big government had George W. Bush’s name on it. He is a Goldwater conservative with some libertarian leanings who also has a pro-life voting record. Yet if Flake has an easy ride to the GOP senatorial nomination even in a state like Arizona, it will reflect poorly on efforts by immigration-control groups to make amnesty as unpalatable to Republican voters as tax increases.

W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.

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17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "Is Jeff Flake Arizona’s Next John McCain?"

#1 Comment By Jane Marple On April 26, 2011 @ 11:24 am

God saves us from “patriots” like McCain and Flake. Such “leaders” as these “men,” (to name but two of them), have do more to damage the America they puport to love than Osama bin Laden and his “Islamo-fascists” could do in one hundred years.

#2 Comment By GoJoe On April 26, 2011 @ 11:51 am

Arpaio is serious about deportation of illegals and about radically cutting back on legal immigration. If Flake knows what’s good for him he’ll come round the right side of the horse on this issue. The Tea Party kettle is still boiling.

#3 Comment By WJ On April 27, 2011 @ 6:55 am

Regarding illegal immigration, it appears that Republican politicians have gone backwards on the issue. There seems to be no main street Repub support to head off the tsunami of illegal aliens. I am very discouraged that the open borders types like Flake seem to be getting stronger every year.

#4 Comment By Luther On April 27, 2011 @ 8:42 am

Repubs are pander bears to Hispanic voters and not averse to bringing in cheap labor for biz cronies.

#5 Comment By Carlist On April 27, 2011 @ 1:03 pm

The gorilla in the Arizona G.O.P.’s living room is the state Chamher of Commerce.

And since tourism is the state’s major industry, businesses are addicted to the heroin provided by cheap, unskilled labor.

Benefits can be, and are passed on to the taxpayer via the courts.

That’s why our conservative Congressional delegation fought so hard against Prop 200 and why the national level local pols e.g J.D.Hayworth who supported it were gutted by the local media and purse keepers.

McCain also ensures that key allies such as Grant Woods and Wes Gullett (currently running for the Phoenix mayorality) head up “Republicans for: Democratic Candidate” efforts in major statewide elections. This tactic keeps those who would stray from the Chamber’s “Open Borders uber alles” stance in line!

Paradoxically, Arizona’s “Clean Elections Law” which allows public funding for candidates has benefited social and cultural conservatives in their electoral successes within the State Legislature!

While understandable from an ideological viewpoint those who are seeking to eliminate this law (see the Goldwater Institute)
will in effect, cut their own throats!

But then again, the G.O.P. hasn’t earned the soubriquet “Stupid Party” for nothing!

#6 Comment By sam in Az On April 27, 2011 @ 3:32 pm

Flake after all the e mails to him is not interested in changing his personal views on amnesty for all. However those who are in the know told him with that view point he would never get the senate seat. So he caved to hopefully get the senate.
You and I know he will barely sit down in his chair before he goes back to his personal point of view. We can’t keep the gates open like this. Other countries guard their borders very carefully.

#7 Comment By JBond On April 27, 2011 @ 3:41 pm

Would NOT vote for Flake unless he can prove he supports SB1070 – We in Arizona are fed up giving Free everything to Illegal’s while US Citzens have to pay and are godished with paying for these bumbs – WE WANT ILLEGAL’S OUT OF ARIZONA AND OUR COUNTRY –

#8 Comment By Elaine Donnelly On April 27, 2011 @ 3:54 pm

In December 2010 Rep. Jeff Flake let down the military by voting to repeal the 1993 law stating that homosexuals are not eligible to serve in the military. There was no excuse for this rushed vote for “privileged” legislation to repeal the law with delayed implementation, which both the House and Senate passed during the lame-duck session. Rep. Flake should be held accountable for this unacceptable vote to impose LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) law on the men and women of our armed forces.
Elaine Donnelly, President, Center for Military Readiness.

#9 Comment By Mad Doc MacRae On April 27, 2011 @ 7:05 pm

[email protected] readiness

Stop worrying about gays and go after the real threat to military readiness – grinding down our forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Libya.

Hell, maybe if we make our military less ready we’d use it less.

#10 Comment By Richard On April 27, 2011 @ 9:10 pm

Each person has free will and will prosper or suffer depending on their choices. The more people engaged in a similar choice defines the size of the outcome. Turning the other chick applies only when you are trying to spread the word.

Spread the word, never try to force it. Encourage the young to marry and have children. Plant seeds and nourish by example. This in no way means “do nothing.”

Protect your right for self-persuasion. Only those with a strong will to maintain numbers and defense will prosper. The two party system is of one breed, greed. The more people that engage in distraction the easier it is for the focused. Join goooh.com or click on my name or keep pouring perfume on pigs.

#11 Comment By Carol On April 28, 2011 @ 6:58 am

Interesting. It sounds like Flake is not a lock-step kinda guy. And a libertarian streak is a very good thing. I’ll have to find out what’s behind his immigration stance. He may have sound reasons that are not the knee-jerk assumptions of the masses.

#12 Pingback By The American Spectator : AmSpecBlog : People Movin’ Around On April 28, 2011 @ 1:20 pm

[…] by Eva Longoria and Rosario Dawson that it's time for Obama-style immigration reform. He found my TAC piece on Jeff Flake. Though for the record, I actually do agree with Flake on travel to Cuba (among other […]

#13 Comment By sommers On April 28, 2011 @ 6:45 pm

Libertarians naturally have an approach of freedom af choice and movement. That might be why Flake is for amnesty or the like, maybe. Which also fits his feelings on the homosexuals, seemingly.
But in all seriousness he has to realize that this country cannot exist with open borders, it’s just not doable. Despite a Libertarian sense of fairness.

#14 Comment By Carlist On April 29, 2011 @ 11:35 am

I would add that the lbertarian “sense of fairness” is augmented by the Arizona hotel, restaurant and farming establishment’s dependence and fanatical loyalty towards cheap, unskilled labor regardless of its source.

The basic truth which the Flakes, McCains and Shadeggs have grasped lies in the fact that their financial benefactors owe their prosperity to non compliance with immigration law!

But they don’t have the intellectual honesty or political courage to legally advance their masters’ requirements by calling for the abolition of immigration law per se!

Like all too many of their fellow GOPPERS they’ll tell the “booboisee” what it wants to hear during the election cycle and then condemn them as “extemists” upon taking office and commence to “reach out” to the left!

The only grass roots that this crowd will respond to are those growing within golf courses!

#15 Comment By Rossbach On May 1, 2011 @ 2:40 pm

Those who are giving aid and comfort to the illegal aliens who are invading our country are traitors, no matter what political label they apply to themselves. Amnesty, no matter how it is characterized by its advocates, is treason. For that reason alone, I would never vote for (or trust) anyone who ever supported it.

#16 Comment By Patricia Brittell On May 1, 2011 @ 4:48 pm

I am very disappointed in Flake, guess his name say’s it all. Him
being Mormon may have something to do with it. They all have a
tendency to hire green card Mexicans for low wages, and I wouldn’t
be surprised if a few illegal ones get hired as well.
Every time I have emailed him on an issue, his response is so vague and he will not commit to anything worth while. Maybe we should
pray for him to see the light and truth of the matter, or maybe we need to get rid of him and McCain, they are both fence riders.

P. Brittell

#17 Comment By Ron Gosselin On July 3, 2012 @ 11:14 am

Jeff Flake is a disaster. He is one of the reasons why this country is in this mess. He is not a CONSERVATIVE. He claims that he is a conservative. The reason he claims that he is a conservative is that they classify him on social issues and not on fiscal issues. He is definitely a Republican Liberal.
Last night I attended a Debate Forum at the LD28 for the four candidates that are running for the US Senate seat. It was recorded on ABC Channel 15. There was a candidate there by the name of Van Steenwyk (known as Van for US SENATE)running for the Senate seat. He definitely was the best candidate there.He out debated the other candidates there including Jeff Flake. Jeff Flake looked like an amature. Everybody should take a look at Van as in my opinion is the best candidate out there to replace Senator Kyl. Van is a Christian Constitutional Republican in that order. Please check his web site.vanforussenate.com