A closer look at the Republican statesman who dropped out of the race to protest his own party’s leader—and the forces that led him to that precipitous moment on the Senate floor.
Taped to the refrigerator in the house Jeff Flake grew up in was a three-by-five-inch card smeared with baking residue. As described in his 2017 book, Conscience of a Conservative, the card read, “Assume the best. Look for the good.”
“I wish everyone lived by that,” the Arizona senator says, smiling, “but the best I can do is to try and live it myself.” We’re talking outside the Senate two weeks after he took the floor to announce he would not be running for reelection this year—a speech that made waves worldwide for its frank denouncements of a “new normal” in American politics, defined in the speech as “the accommodation of a new and undesirable order.” Asked if he believes the current leadership might ever embrace the fridge wisdom of Flake’s youth, he is sanguine; he shakes his head and keeps the smile. “As I said, I wish everyone lived by that. I am so thankful my parents gave me this as a creed and I’ve passed it on to my children.”
Folksy moments like these aside, Senator Flake can be hard to pin down. He’s often reluctant to speak with people he doesn’t know, but reporters who cover the Senate regularly say he can become quite loquacious as he walks the halls of the Capitol. He looks like a Hollywood leading man, but with his nose bent slightly askew, he also has an everyman charm that attracts voters. And though he’s been elected several times to the House of Representatives, starting in 2000, and once to the Senate, he has not always been popular.
A staunch conservative—and, many would say, an enemy to some key liberal causes—Senator Flake is also a vocal supporter of sane and welcoming immigration policy. A devout Mormon, he spoke at the Islamic Center of the North East Valley in Scottsdale, Arizona in late 2015. His tone brought to mind Barack Obama more than any other recent leader.
“It is well known by those in this room but certainly underappreciated around the country that Muslim Americans have fought and died alongside Christians, Jews and others in every war our nation has fought since the Revolution, including most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. His speech even took on a personal perspective: “Muslims make the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. The Mormon hajj is to our holy temple. Because, like Muslims, Mormons do not drink alcohol, our trip to the temple is usually followed by a stop at Dairy Queen. Ice cream is about all we Mormons have. I’m not sure if there’s a corollary for Muslims.”
Flake stood out in the early days of Donald Trump’s campaign for opposing immigration restriction—the infamous “wall” being one of the early components of the Trump stump speech. “When reevaluating immigration policy, it is right to give priority, through a point system or otherwise, to those who have skills and abilities unique to the new economy,” Flake wrote in an August 2017 op-ed for The New York Times. “But there must always be a place in America for those whose only initial credentials are a strong back and an eagerness to use it.”
When it comes to guns, Flake gets an A grade from the NRA, which endorsed his Senate run. Still, he has been known to skew leftward on gun control—with firsthand experience of a mass shooting to back up his arguments. He was present the day House Majority Whip Steve Scalise was shot on a baseball diamond in Alexandria, Virginia last June.
“It was horrifying,” Flake says. “You hear the bullets and see your friends running for safety. You know you’re not safe. I can’t describe it adequately, but no one should have to go through that. No one.” Since then, Flake has echoed calls for stricter laws in the wake of the shootings in Las Vegas and Texas.
And while Flake has often voted in line with President Trump—some 91 percent of the time, according to Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez—he has apparently come to believe that opposing the president is more important than enacting legislation upon which both men agree.
His conservative bona fides have never been in question. The American Conservative Union rates him at 93 percent, FreedomWorks at 95 percent—his worst marks among those given by six of the top conservative and limited-government organizations. Americans for Prosperity gives him a 97 percent rating. The National Taxpayers Union grades him an A.
The family portrait on his website resembles a lightly updated version of Happy Days, and his critics often accuse him of espousing a 1950s view of America that no longer exists, if it ever did in the first place. But regardless of his stance on issues, few doubted his sincerity when he stood on the floor of the Senate and announced he wouldn’t run.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi tells playboy she wasn’t all that surprised by Flake’s decision. “It took a lot of courage,” she says. “But I remember him taking on earmark legislation when he was in the House. We gave him what we called ‘the Flake Hour’ and he would go after earmarks. Oftentimes nothing happened, but he took it on earnestly.”
Flake often broached the discretionary spending of his colleagues—funds provided to help specific causes and special interests by circumventing the normal legislative process. He even took on earmarks in a piece of Pelosi legislation. “I told you he had courage,” she says with a laugh. “He’s very true to himself. You always know where you stand with him.”
In that light, Flake’s mercurial nature looks less like political flip-flopping and more like the work of a man who, whether you agree with him or not, genuinely prizes old-fashioned integrity over the party line.
Self-sacrifice and hard work, family and church have always been staples of Flake’s life. Born in Snowflake, Arizona, a town partially named for his great-great grandfather, Flake grew up working on the family cattle ranch. “Believe me,” he says, “if you live on a cattle ranch, then you work.”
Flake admits it was a cloistered existence. “Just to let you know how sheltered I was, not until I went away to college did I find out flake was a funny term,” he says. “Nobody made fun of Flakes in Snowflake.”
At an early age he also acquainted himself with the value of learning things the hard way. As recalled in his autobiography, he lost the tip of his right index finger at the age of five while working on a machine used to rake freshly mown alfalfa into rows. “Yeah,” he says, “I lost part of a finger. But I was young. I laugh about it now.”
I am very happy with my work in the Senate, but it doesn’t define who I am.
Considered by most who know him as a man of genuine affection, he is the married father of five children. “I am very happy with my work in the Senate,” he says, “but it doesn’t define who I am. My top memories are of family, personal relationships and church.” He has been called a poster boy for his religion and has served as a missionary in Africa. A staunch conservative who opposes abortion and gay marriage and who has served as executive director of the Goldwater Institute, he seemed a natural and important ally for Donald Trump.
But Flake didn’t see Trump as a savior of the conservative movement; he saw him as a fake, a liar and a used-car salesman who threatened not only the GOP but the entire country—a bully who substituted bombast for political skills. Flake’s criticisms often made him sound like the senators across the aisle, but Flake dismisses any suggestion that he’s switching sides.
“I just speak my mind,” he says with a smile.
“The thing about Jeff,” one Hill staffer says, “he doesn’t like to make deals with the devil. He believes what he believes. And he doesn’t believe in putting the party ahead of the country.”
“It’s more important to me that I can sleep with myself and face my children,” Flake says.
Senator Flake’s full complexity came glinting through during his Senate-floor speech, as well as in the giddy moments before and after. That day he presented himself as both canny and earnest—and possibly the closest thing we have to a politician who can coax the political temperament away from the brink and back toward the middle.
Flake walked slowly toward the U.S. Senate from his nearby office in the Russell building. His Kirk Douglas–worthy chin led the way, and his dark blue suit followed. Reporters who caught him going into the Capitol knew he was scheduled to speak, but no one, with the exception of a very few of his closest aides and family members, knew what the Arizona senator with the piercing blue eyes would say that day.
Several reporters shouted questions to that effect as he strode to the Capitol.
He smiled. “Wait and see,” he said. He brushed his hands through his hair as he walked the halls. He did nothing to give away the gravity of the speech or the passion he would show on the floor of the Senate.
Less than an hour later, he walked out of the Capitol holding his wife Cheryl’s hand and making his way through the many reporters trying to corner him.
“The guy just changed the world,” one of them said.
On the floor, Senator Flake had recited a laundry list of Trump’s worst habits without once saying his name: “the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms and institutions, and the flagrant disregard for truth and decency, the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have been elected to serve.”
He upbraided the president for pushing policy via Twitter, and he pushed back at the GOP, arguing that the party was splintering and becoming irrelevant. “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. It’s also clear to me for the moment that we have given in or given up on the core principles in favor of a more viscerally satisfying anger and resentment.”
Taking care to avoid alienating the president’s base, he added, “To be clear, the anger and resentment that the people feel at the royal mess that we’ve created are justified, but anger and resentment are not a governing philosophy.”
As Independent Journal Review reporter Haley Byrd tweeted following his speech, Flake received a standing ovation from Republican senators Mitch McConnell, Bob Corker, John Barrasso and Todd Young. The speech also brought cheers from Democrats including senators Chris Coons, Tim Kaine, Maggie Hassan and Jeff Merkley. Fellow Arizona senator John McCain later praised the speech at a press gaggle: “I have seen Jeff Flake stand up for what he believes in knowing full well that there would be a political price to pay. I have seen him stand up for his family. I’ve seen him stand up for his forebears…. When Flake’s service to this country is reviewed, it will be one of honor, of brilliance and patriotism and love of country.”
Predictably, the speech struck a nerve with Trump, who tweeted out at least three jabs. He suggested that Flake was a weak senator and couldn’t win even if he did run. Flake, in a reflective moment a week after his announcement, replied that while the president may have had a point, the real reason is far greater. “We used to be able to run on policies. Now it’s all about the president and if you support him—and I’m not going to condone his behavior.”
While no one can say how he or she will come across in future history books, or even if those books will record their efforts at all, Flake staked his claim on the floor of the Senate for things that have apparently disappeared from the American body politic: spirited debate without rancor, and honor before party.
“We were not made great as a country by indulging or even exalting our worst impulses, turning against ourselves, glorying in the things which divide us and calling fake things true and true things fake,” Flake said.
The senator’s immediate future is either unknown or a closely guarded secret, but there’s a sense that the gloves are off. On the day several women came forward to accuse GOP senate nominee Roy Moore of sexual harassment, Flake renewed his fight against the “moral rot” some have described inside the Republican Party.
“No. No. No,” he told a group of cameras and reporters in the basement of the Russell Senate Office building when asked if he would ever support Moore. “He should not continue his campaign.” Flake wanted the man, who is now endorsed by President Trump, to step down. Another quiet attack on the new normal.
As he strode through the halls of the U.S. Capitol following his October speech, he looked like a man at peace with himself—a man who’d gotten it off his chest and was resigned to an uncertain future but hopeful he’d played a part in shaping it.
Republicans who espouse the old-world view of conservatism see Flake as a vital player in the realignment the party is undergoing; others, who see the outgoing senator as Tea Party before the Tea Party was cool, say they don’t want Flake involved in the GOP going forward. The bottom line is that Flake will have as much input as he wants.
Some have encouraged him to run for president, but he laughs off that suggestion. “One man sent me a check for $20.20 and said I should run for president,” he says. “I’m not going to cash the check, but I appreciate it. After all, with a name like Flake, you can only rise so high in national politics.”