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.
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.