DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And President Trump's next speech will be at a rally for his supporters tonight in Phoenix, Ariz. Now, why Arizona? And why right now? Well, one reason may be Jeff Flake. He is Arizona's junior U.S. senator, a Republican, but a vocal critic of the president. And many expect Trump to go after Flake directly. Here's more from reporter Jude Joffe-Block, a journalism fellow with New America and a veteran of covering Arizona politics.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Good evening. I'd like to call the Republican Party of Mesa LD-25 district meeting to order.
JUDE JOFFE-BLOCK: This meeting is for Republican Party activists in Mesa, a conservative suburb east of Phoenix. Arizona's junior senator, Jeff Flake, has a house here and used to represent the area in Congress. But many of the GOP grass-roots leaders in this room, like 75-year-old Gene Klund, aren't Flake fans.
GENE KLUND: Jeff Flake is a never-Trumper (ph). He's not representing, in my opinion, the people of Arizona. He's representing his own self-interest.
JOFFE-BLOCK: Flake is in his first term. And recent polls suggest he's one of the least popular senators in the country. In this room, it's Flake's moderate stance on immigration that makes him unpopular. Then there's his long-running feud with President Trump, who he refused to vote for. Even though Flake has actually voted for almost all of the bills Trump has supported and his administration's nominees, Trump loyalists still say Flake is trying to thwart the president's agenda.
Flake recently released a book that's critical of his own party and the president, saying they've lost touch with conservative values and have, quote, "given in to the politics of anger." That hasn't won over party activists like Billie Bollwinkel.
BILLIE BOLLWINKEL: I think we need to drain the swamp. And I think Flake has added to the swamp, and I'm sorry to say that.
JOFFE-BLOCK: Trump has reportedly promised to give $10 million to unseat Flake in his primary. Last week, the president tweeted that Flake is, quote, "toxic, and weak on borders and crime." In the same tweet, he praised Flake's first official primary challenger, Dr. Kelli Ward.
CONSTANTIN QUERARD: It's pretty obvious that Flake's book has only made things much, much worse and even more personal for the president.
JOFFE-BLOCK: Constantin Querard is a conservative campaign strategist with the Arizona firm Grassroots Partners. While many political operatives here question if Ward is a strong enough candidate to win a general election, she is very pro-Trump and an immigration hawk. Last year, she unsuccessfully tried to unseat Arizona's senior senator, John McCain, in his primary. Ward sounded giddy when speaking to the Phoenix talk radio station KFYI after Trump's tweet.
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KELLI WARD: I did notice he spelled my name right. And I, you know, I gave a little cheer for that, as well. I look forward to welcoming him to Arizona.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Thank you. Senator Flake...
JOFFE-BLOCK: On Monday morning, Flake was holding a breakfast with a local chamber of commerce in the Phoenix suburbs. Afterwards, reporters asked Flake if he thought it was appropriate for the president to endorse a candidate challenging a senator from his own party in the primary.
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JEFF FLAKE: We're running my own campaign. It's going well. And, you know, what the president's - does, that's his prerogative.
JOFFE-BLOCK: Republican strategist Constantin Querard points out that Trump easily won Arizona's presidential primary last year. He says speaking out and writing a book critical of the president is a risky bet.
QUERARD: And that has basically turned this Senate race into the question of, can you basically run against Trump and get re-elected as a Republican?
JOFFE-BLOCK: Flake supporters say it's unclear how influential Trump will be with voters a year from now and say Flake's criticism of the president could also wind up working in his favor. For NPR News, I'm Jude Joffe-Block in Phoenix.
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