They Gave to Jeff Flake’s Campaign. Now These Donors Don’t Know What to Do
When Sen. Jeff Flake announced his retirement Tuesday, it wasn’t for a lack of money. As of Sept. 30, his campaign had raised nearly $3.1 million, with an additional $1.3 coming from his victory fund — with almost a year until the actual primary election.
Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice hit the fundraising circuit for him, and he attracted some of Arizona’s biggest donors, such as Francis Najafi, the founder and CEO the private equity firm Pivotal Group, and Aerospace corporation chairman Barbara Barrett, who was George W. Bush’s ambassador to Finland.
But in the end, those numbers didn’t matter. Flake acknowledged Tuesday that he would not seek reelection, citing increasingly powerful forces in American politics that would make his path to the nomination virtually impossible unless he compromised his principles.
“Like so many others, I was stunned to hear Senator Flake’s decision not to seek reelection at the end of his term,” Barrett, who contributed $50,000 to Flake’s reelection efforts, wrote in an e-mail to Fortune. “He demonstrated the power of a single principled voice to change Washington,” she continued, noting his fight against earmarks. “He will be missed.”
But now that Flake’s out of the next election cycle, Barrett and his other donors have a choice: Sit out the race; wait to see if an alternative emerges; or donate to Kelli Ward, who was challenging Flake in the Republican primary. Ward was recently endorsed by former White House Strategist Steve Bannon, who has declared a self-described “war” on the Republican Establishment through insurgent primary candidates.
Until the announcement, Ward had raised less than a third of the money Flake had, although she has the support of megadonor Robert Mercer, who contributed $300,000 to a super pac supporting her candidacy. Ward’s campaign told Fortune it has raised approximately $100,000 since Flake announced his retirement Wednesday afternoon.
“It definitely was a surge after Senator Flake’s announcement,” said Eric Beach, a strategist for the campaign. “What I saw was a whole host of supporters thinking Kelli is gonna be the nominee and we want to give our support.”
Barrett declined to say who she wants to see enter the race, and whether she would ultimately support Ward, only stating that she wants a candidate who represents “principled leadership for Arizona and America.”
Some former Flake donors are ready to back her, however. Humberto Lopez, a real estate executive in Arizona, donated $5,000 to Flake’s reelection campaign in July, but after he visited Washington D.C. three weeks ago, he began gravitating towards Ward.
“Everybody was very disappointed,” he said of the meetings he had discussing the prospects of the Senate race. “A number of people thought Kelli Ward would win but that the one with the most likelihood of winning was [Democratic candidate Kyrsten] Sinema.”I saw the writing on the wall; he’s not very much appreciated out there so I pretty much aligned myself what the rest of the world was thinking.”
Lopez also expressed disapproval with Flake for publicly airing his disagreements with President Trump. Flake has been openly critical of the President’s conduct and rhetoric, and said part of his decision to forego reelection lay in his inability to unequivocally defend him. “It’s difficult to win a Republican primary these days if you disagree with the president on anything, or if you countenance his behavior, which I don’t think that we ought to normalize,” he told CNN Tuesday.
Although Lopez has not yet donated to Ward’s campaign, he said he is likely to do so once he meets her in person. “My inclination to support Ward is with my disappointment with Flake,” he explained.
But Charles Dubroff, an investor from Scottsdale who, along with his wife has a donated a collective $20,000 to both of Flake’s campaigns, did not share Lopez’s perspective. “Flake was someone who could make a difference; he was honest and true,” he said. “I thought he had a great moral compass.”
“I think thats just the way of American politics today and the primaries are mobilizing the base and I think that’s unfortunately what’s occurring,” he said of Flake’s decision, echoing the Senator’s own sentiments. “It’s gonna be Arizona, it’s gonna be other states.”
Like Barrett, Dubroff declined to say who he would want to jump in the race as Flake’s replacement, only noting that there were a plethora of candidates who he could see himself supporting. However, Ward was not on that list. “No I do not,” he said, when asked if he could ever conceive of a situation where he would back her.
And Andrew Cohn, a real estate investor who donated $5,000 to Flake’s Victory Fund on Sept. 30 — less than a month before the Senator announced his retirement — said he simply couldn’t provide any insight about whether he would support Ward or wait and see who else throws their hat into the ring.
“I don’t know enough about Kelli to have an opinion,” he said. “It would be an emotional response and I would rather be educated.”