WASHINGTON — For Sen. Jeff Flake, it hasn’t been easy leaving the comfortable confines of the House, where he spent a dozen years as one of the chamber’s conservative superstars.
Once a popular, leading voice for fiscal conservatism in Arizona, in his first few months in the upper chamber, Flake has been buffeted by the new and often unfamiliar political winds that come from representing not just one small congressional district but an entire state.
His vote against a tough new background-check gun control measure tanked his popularity in Arizona — with a 32% approval rating, he ranks at the bottom of the Senate. And his involvement in the bipartisan Gang of Eight immigration reform group is threatening to unleash a storm of conservative criticism Flake isn’t accustomed to.
“Nothing like waking up to a poll saying you’re the nation’s least popular senator. Given the public’s dim view of Congress in general, that probably puts me somewhere just below pond scum,” he wrote on Facebook Monday. “Now, notwithstanding the polling firm’s leftist bent, I would assume that my poll numbers have indeed taken a southerly turn since my vote against the Manchin-Toomey background check proposal. It was a popular amendment, and I voted against it.”
His time so far in the Senate has been a bit of a political crash course for Flake, who handily won reelection to his House seat six times. As a congressman, conservative groups celebrated Flake —and they still do. He was elected to the Senate in 2012 with the endorsements of Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, and Sarah Palin. He was a vocal leader in the House when it came to banning earmarks, and a staunch fiscal conservative.
“I think his challenge, as it was in the Senate race, is that no one disputes his intellectual abilities, he’s a likable, smart guy — it’s just, can he dust off the kooky factor a little bit and not be a backbencher?” said Arizona-based GOP consultant Jason Rose. “While he’s taken a role on immigration, he’s certainly out of the mainstream on the gun issue. And the big criticism of him in Arizona was always, what are you going to do for your state? Are you going to be an ideologue? Or are you going to be intelligent about helping your state? I think the jury is still out on that.”
Moving from the House to the Senate, Flake’s votes come with a greater weight and more scrutiny. His vote against the background check bill comes with a bigger political price than it would have had in his House seat. How he navigates the immigration bill — and if he can help sell it to skeptical conservatives — will help shape the career trajectory of the first term Senator.
“He’s an ideologue that has to wrestle with a political evolution and I think he can evolve with out violating principles,” Rose said. “I think if he does that we’ll speak 30 years from now, talking about five-term senator Jeff Flake.”
His former House colleagues are so far impressed with his ability to balance principle and pragmatism.
“He’s been tried in the fire there recently, and I think he held up really well,” said Rep. Trent Franks. “He has to represent a larger and more diverse constituency than he did, and I’m proud of him. ”
Flake is a close personal friend of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head in Tucson in 2011 and personally lobbied Flake to support the background check bill. He even once wrote a letter to Caren Teves, whose son Alex was killed in Aurora, Colorado, telling her “strengthening background checks is something we agree on.”
Ultimately, Flake believed the Manchin-Toomey amendment went too far. Described by The New York Times as “despondent,” Flake told the the paper he apologized to Giffords for the vote.
Flake spokeswoman Genevieve Rozansky said Flake “knows it was a difficult issue, but ultimately felt it was an infringement on Second Amendment rights.”
Before the Senate vote, Mark Kelly, Giffords’ husband, bluntly told Flake the bill would “absolutely save lives.” Kelly has spoken openly about working to unseat Flake because of the vote.
Rozansky said that the senator has “long felt that background checks need to be strengthened, and he still feels this issue isn’t done with. He hopes there will be more work done with regard to background checks.”
Flake was not available for an interview for this story.
Flake’s argument that his vote against background checks was principled, if emotional, may draw in some negative headlines but won’t permanently damage among his constituents said Arizona Republican strategist Sean Noble.
“It won’t hurt him at all,” Noble said. “This is Arizona. Anyone in Arizona who says they don’t have a gun is lying to you.”
The outside criticism aside, Senate colleagues had nothing but praise for Flake’s work so far.
“I like working with him, he’s a great asset to the Senate. I hate to characterize people with labels, but he and I have a lot in common,” said Sen. Rand Paul. “As I recall, he was a leader in trying to get rid of earmarks and was chastised for having an independent streak.”
Flake and fellow Sen. John McCain have played a crucial role in crafting the Senate’s immigration plan. Flake has been involved in the immigration debate stemming back to his work with Democratic Rep. Luis Guiterrez in 2006.
“He’s been great. Usually they get a lobotomy when you go from one side of this building to the other,” McCain said of Flake. “I haven’t seen that yet.”
Immigration is a fight that Flake has thrust himself into despite deep divisions within the conservative movement that he’s called an ideological home.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has been the conservative face of immigration reform — and has taken significant heat from activists on the right because of provisions in the bill providing an eventual pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented workers in the country.
So far, Flake hasn’t faced the fury of conservatives, but that may not last.
“What the people in Arizona see is that he was elected to the Senate and has quickly become part of the ruling elite rather than remembering that he was elected to represent people,” said Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin. “One of the big things that the tea party movement has pushed for is a more transparent process and fewer backroom deals and the immigration bill was concocted in backroom.”
Noble, however, downplayed the likelihood of repercussions for Flake, noting that he has been ahead of the curve on immigration for a long time.
“He’s led on it and the party has followed,” he said.
Arizona Democratic Party spokesman Frank Camacho called Flake’s role in the Gang of Eight “interesting and encouraging” to watch but didn’t buy that Flake wouldn’t fold to conservative pressure.
“The problem is this, and it’s tied into his vote on the gun bill, and you have to wonder whether he has the political fortitude to go forward … He goes and gives into the bullies of the NRA and in spite of all these good-guy things he did, he turns around a votes against his so-called friends,” Camacho said. “You gotta wonder if there are other pressures he may face with immigration — will Jeff Flake fold? His words don’t reflect his actions, and until they do, you have to take what Jeff Flake says with a grain of salt.”