PHOENIX — U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake's decision to bow out of a re-election fight could spur a rush of other Republican candidates who hope to take on his only announced challenger in the Arizona primary next year.
The freshman senator's decision came after months of saying he expected a tough primary and general election but believed he could win. Behind the scenes, though, a drumbeat of polling showed him badly damaged by comments he made about President Donald Trump in a book released over the summer and an ongoing battle with his party's leader that began before last year's election.
Flake faced a challenge from former state Sen. Kelli Ward, who failed in her effort to beat Sen. John McCain last year but has gained traction this year. Former Trump strategist Steve Bannon attended a fundraiser last week for Ward, who has embraced the anti-establishment, anti-incumbent wing of the party driven by Trump with help from Bannon.
But mainstream Republicans in Arizona believe Ward cannot beat U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, a moderate Democrat who is the only well-known candidate running from her party. They have been searching for another GOP candidate who can draw support from Trump populists, and Flake's decision to step aside opens the door. In the background, the White House also has been seeking another candidate.
Flake's departure has further raised the stakes for what is sure to be a bitter and expensive election battle next year in Arizona as the GOP fights to hold on to a seat and the Democrats seek an opening to pick one up.
Ward discounts talk that she's unelectable, saying people are rallying behind her.
"The people who are dismissive, some of them have sour grapes because they didn't get in at the right time to be able to build the organization that I've built," she said before Flake's announcement.
Despite the party turmoil, Ward and other potential Republican candidates benefit from Arizona's conservatism. Democrats in recent elections have hoped to make inroads, most recently when Hillary Clinton poured money and resources into the state last year only to lose by 4 percentage points. Republicans also hold every statewide office and a majority in the Legislature.
Trump boasted Wednesday of his popularity in Arizona as he ridiculed Flake.
"So, look, (Flake's) poll numbers are terrible," Trump said. "He's done terribly for the great people of Arizona, a state that likes Donald Trump very much as even you will admit. And he would have never won. In fact, even in the primary, he's way down in the primary."
The names of other potential GOP challengers in the Senate race have been floated for months, but none has entered the race. They include state university regent Jay Heiler; former state GOP chairman Robert Graham; state Treasurer and 2016 Trump campaign chief operating officer Jeff DeWit; and Reps. Paul Gosar and Trent Franks.
The other three GOP members of Arizona's House delegation could be wild cards — David Schweikert, Andy Biggs and Martha McSally.
A spokesman for Republican Gov. Doug Ducey said he was "absolutely not" considering running for Senate.
Republican political consultants in Arizona are split on whether there will truly be a flood of candidates.
"Somehow they all seem unlikely to me," Constantin Querard, a top campaign consultant, said of those already in the mix. "Because if you were not going to run against a mortally wounded candidate with the support of the president and millions of dollars of outside spending, why would you suddenly be interested in the race without all of those things?"
Another longtime Republican campaign consultant, who conducted polling showing Flake in bad trouble, isn't so sure. Chuck Coughlin said a candidate who can draw support from the pillars of the GOP establishment in Arizona — Flake, McCain, Ducey and former Gov. Jan Brewer — would be the one to take on Ward.
"The question is, who can most closely thread the needle there between Trump, McCain, Flake, Brewer, the current governor," Coughlin said. "Who is that?"
"One thing I'd guarantee you is Kelli Ward will face a primary opponent, there's no doubt in my mind on that," he added.
Another potential problem for Arizona Republicans is the health of McCain, who was diagnosed this summer with an aggressive form of brain cancer and acknowledges his prognosis is poor. A vacancy in McCain's seat before April means a second Senate race would be on the 2018 ballot.
Flake told The Associated Press as recently this month that he was in the race to win and discounted both Ward and Sinema.
By Tuesday, things were different for Flake.
"If I could run the kind of race I'd like to run and believe I could win a Republican primary, I might go forward," he told reporters at the U.S. Capitol after his announcement. "These days, it seems that unless you're on every policy the president has, then somehow you're not a conservative."
Flake is a throwback Arizona conservative, with strong small government credentials but a libertarian streak along the lines of the late Sen. Barry Goldwater. He sparred with the president over free trade, which he supports, immigration reform and opening relations with Cuba.
Those positions put him in the crosshairs of Trump and the grass-roots populists he courts.
This story has been corrected to show that Rep. Kyrsten Sinema's name was misspelled Krysten and that Jeff DeWit was chief operating officer of Donald Trump's 2016 campaign, not chief financial officer.