Can a Democrat replace Jeff Flake?

The Arizona senator's retirement bombshell opens door for heated election to replace him — and 3 women are running

Published December 3, 2017 11:00AM (EST)

Jeff Flake (Getty/Drew Angerer)
Jeff Flake (Getty/Drew Angerer)

This feature is part of Salon's Young Americans initiative, showcasing emerging journalists reporting from America's red states. Read more Young Americans stories.

ya-embed-logoArizona Sen. Jeff Flake dropped a bombshell in late October when he announced he was not going to run for re-election, leaving in his wake a free-for-all for his senate seat.

Flake has been one of President Donald Trump’s most outspoken critics — or at least in terms of Republicans, along with fellow Arizona Sen. John McCain — and has been facing increased criticism in his home state of Arizona from both Republicans and Democrats as well as from Trump.

The speech during which he announced he was not seeking re-election also served as a scathing rebuke of Trump and the new administration, condemning, among other things, the president’s conduct and civility — or lack thereof.

“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 for too much bandwidth and would cause me to compromise far too many principles,” Flake said.

Flake’s announcement was surprising to many, and has many potential replacements scrambling to join the race in what will be one of the more hotly contested seats in the 2018 midterm election. Flake was seemingly facing a long, uphill battle had he decided to seek re-election, but his dropping out opens up the door for a number of potential candidates.

Who will replace him is obviously of greatest importance now, and several high-profile candidates within the state have already announced their plans to run against him. Here are the three women, who have so far announced their candidacy, and how they will be different from Flake, who has held the seat since 2013.

Kyrsten Sinema

Rep. Sinema (D-Ariz.) is looking to become the first Democratic senator from Arizona since 1988. Sinema, who’s been in the House since 2012, was a top candidate for the Democrats to take on Flake, but with him out of the race, it’s hard to tell if it will be easier or harder for her to win.

Sinema is a moderate Democrat who has been known to work with Republicans on certain issues, but she will face a staunch conservative who more closely aligns with Trump’s agenda in the general election, should she win the Democratic primary as expected. Sinema hasn’t completely distanced herself from Trump, however, as she has voted in line with him 50 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight. Her campaign will focus on her work helping military veterans and cutting regulatory red tape.

She is one of the most GOP-friendly members of the House. According to GovTrack, Sinema is the fourth-most conservative Democrat in Congress and the third-most bipartisan member. Neither is necessarily a bad thing, especially in such a fragmented political atmosphere, but Republican groups have already announced they would use that willingness to cross the aisle to work together as a negative. Luckily for Sinema, she is known to be a prolific fundraiser and should have the capital necessary to seriously contend for the seat.

Martha McSally

Congresswoman McSally has not officially announced her candidacy, but she told fellow GOP House colleagues of her intent to run in the election in a meeting. McSally, like Sinema, is a great fundraiser, but unlike Sinema, she has a track record of being Trump’s most reliable supporter among Arizona representatives, voting with him 96 percent of the time.

McSally seems to be the establishment favorite for the GOP primary, but faces some opposition within her own party, despite her voting record. Some have pointed to her criticisms of Trump, while others point to her connection with House Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has become a frequent target of Trump.

Kelli Ward

Ward, a former state Senator, has the endorsement of former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and conservative media, as well as support in the form of a tweet from Trump, who has not officially endorsed her. Ward was looking increasingly likely to beat Flake had they faced off in a primary, but McSally poses a different challenge entirely.

Ward is an anti-establishment, pro-Trump Republican who came in stark contrast to Flake, who was immensely unpopular. McSally has a pro-Trump voting record as well, and is not seen as being as much of a fringe candidate as Ward and may be more appealing for more moderate voters. Ward was considered the frontrunner before Flake announced his retirement, and for the moment probably still is, although a lot can change between now and election time in 2018.

By Vincent Peña

Born and raised in Phoenix, Vincent Peña attended Northern Arizona for undergrad and headed to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for grad school. He's a huge journalism nerd who has mostly written about sports, but wanted to venture out and write about issues that are important to him and his community, especially in Arizona. There's more to Arizona than cacti, bad government decisions, 117-degree heat, and mediocre sports teams — like 80-degree winters and the best Mexican food north of the border. His main vices are books and coffee. Follow him on Twitter @vincent_pena7.

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