By Lisa Hagen - 07-23-17 10:00 AM EDT
Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) could soon face primary challenges from allies of President Trump.
Flake and Heller - considered two of the most vulnerable GOP senators up for reelection in 2018 - were critical of Trump during the 2016 campaign and have shown a willingness to buck him during his first six months in office.
It remains to be seen whether Trump will support or fund primary challenges against sitting GOP senators, especially since Trump-backed infighting could upset Republicans' slim, 52-seat Senate majority. But there's early indications that Trump or his allies could wage war against members of his own party, especially if the Senate GOP's ObamaCare repeal completely falls apart.
The White House has met with three declared or prospective candidates who could face Flake in Arizona. That list includes former state Sen. Kelli Ward, who announced last fall, as well as Arizona State Treasurer Jeff DeWit and former Arizona Republican Party chairman Robert Graham, both of whom worked on Trump's state campaign and are mulling bids. Politico first reported the White House meetings.
Flake frequently clashed with Trump during the 2016 campaign, calling on him to withdraw after the leaked "Access Hollywood" tape showed the president bragging groping women.
While Trump's approval ratings are underwater nationally, Arizona GOP strategists say that his favorability remains high in the state among GOP voters, ranging from 80 to 90 percent approval. Flake's vocal criticism of Trump has inflamed Trump loyalists, opening him up to challenges from the right.
Ward confirmed to The Hill that she's visited the White House several times, but wouldn't disclose whom she met with or what was discussed. Ward lost by more than 12 points to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in last year's primary, but quickly announced that she'd run again in 2018.
Asked if she'd remain in the primary if other Republicans jump in, Ward said, "I'm in this race to win it, and Jeff DeWit and Robert Graham both know that."
But in the wake of McCain's brain cancer diagnosis, Ward has called on him to step aside and floated that Arizona's governor should appoint her as a replacement until a special election is held.
DeWit, the COO of Trump's Arizona campaign, has been to the White House multiple times this year and has spoken with Trump and senior aides, according to a source. Strategists say DeWit has the name recognition and infrastructure to mount a credible bid against Flake a run, but some say he will only enter the race if Trump asks him to.
"Jeff [DeWit] is waiting for the president to call him. If the president calls and says 'I want you in this race,' DeWit is in. If that call doesn't come, I don't think Jeff ever gets into this race," a Republican familiar with Arizona politics told The Hill.
Graham, who was a Trump adviser, has also met with the White House. Republicans in the state say that Graham is also popular in conservative circles, but note that he and DeWit wouldn't run against each other because of their close relationship during the 2016 campaign.
Flake appeared to dismiss the White House's talks with potential primary opponents, noting that this isn't the first time he's disagreed with presidents of his own party.
"If the president wants to recruit a primary opponent, that's his prerogative. He can do that," Flake told the Washington Post. "I've had issues with other Republican presidents on policy, maybe not as many. But anyway, that's what you do if you're a senator."
Trump has previously expressed interest in unseating Flake. Last fall, he reportedly said he'd spend $10 million of his own money to take out the GOP incumbent.
For now, though, Arizona political observers say Flake is well positioned to survive the primary - thanks in part to the $3 million his campaign has in the bank. They believe DeWit would be a formidable primary opponent in a one-on-one match-up, a chance that would be complicated if Ward remains in the race.
"I think a Flake-DeWit race could be a dogfight and a race to watch," said Brett Mecum, a GOP political consultant in Arizona. "However, the bottom line is Jeff Flake is only weak if it's a head-to-head contest."
In Nevada, perennial candidate Danny Tarkanian is considering a Senate bid against Heller. Tarkanian, the son of legendary University of Nevada, Las Vegas basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, has run several times for office. Most recently, Tarkanian lost a close race for an open swing seat in the House. He's also considering another run for that seat.
Tarkanian supported Trump throughout the presidential campaign, and while he criticized him after the "Access Hollywood" tape, he never rescinded his endorsement.
Heller has already drawn a Democratic challenger. Freshman Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) was Democrats' top recruit for the seat, with almost universal backing from high-profile Democratic lawmakers and groups.
Heller, whose state went for Hillary Clinton in 2016 by a few points, has been in the hot seat as Senate Republicans struggle to find the votes on repealing ObamaCare. Heller has been a vocal opponent of the Senate's repeal and replace bill, which threatens Nevada's Medicaid expansion.
Heller's hesitation on healthcare reform has angered Trump allies and conservatives, who have threatened to campaign against him if he doesn't support the Senate's latest efforts. Heller's campaign didn't respond to a request for comment.
America First Policies, an outside group aligned with Trump, initially planned to run an ad campaign against the Nevada Republican after he opposed the repeal bill - an unorthodox move for a group affiliated with the president. The group ultimately pulled the ads, which reportedly angered Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Conservatives have grown frustratedby some GOP senators' opposition or indecision on McConnell's plan to vote for a repeal-only bill that would delay a replacement for two years. Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt said he'll campaign against Heller "every single day" if he votes against these efforts, even tweeting that Heller must be replaced, even by a Democrat, if he opposes the legislation.
Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF) said they will recruit and fund primary challenges to GOP senators who vote against ObamaCare repeal. The top conservative group has yet to single out any specific senators or races, but is keeping an eye on Heller and Flake.
"We're watching the races in Arizona and Nevada closely and stand ready to support strong challengers who are true conservatives, have strong grassroots support, and can run a winning campaign," SCF President Ken Cuccinelli said in a statement to The Hill.
Trump has also applied pressure on Heller directly. During a White House meeting with GOP senators urging them to vote for ObamaCare repeal, Trump singled out Heller, who was sitting next to him, and said, "Look, he wants to remain senator, doesn't he?"
White House officials are pushing back on the idea that Trump is threatening sitting incumbents, adding that he's asking senators to keep their promises on repealing ObamaCare.
"There's not a sense of a veiled threat," White House legislative director Marc Short said at a briefing earlier this week.
"The president's been pretty direct in his words, and he's right now saying, 'This is what you promised.'"
Updated at 10:48 a.m.