WASHINGTON—In the spectacle that is the confirmation process of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., has emerged as one of the stars of the show.
Without Flake, the curtain might have closed on the drama last weekend. But a funny thing happened on the way to Friday’s meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee: Two protesters encountered the senator in an elevator, accusing him of dismissing victims of sexual assault and voicing their own stories of being assaulted. One protester told him of her experience being molested as a child while Flake listened with a downcast expression. The protesters turned out to be activists connected with the liberal-leaning Center for Popular Democracy.
Nevertheless, Flake showed signs of wavering afterward. He declined to give a regular statement and pulled aside Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., as well as others on the Judiciary Committee, to talk in a back room. When the issue finally came up for a vote, Flake lobbed his grenade: He said he would vote to advance Kavanaugh out of committee but on the condition that lawmakers would ask for a weeklong FBI investigation ahead of a full floor vote. The committee voted 11-10 along party lines to recommend Kavanaugh to the full Senate.
With a razor-thin majority of 51-49 in the Senate, GOP leadership agreed to the investigation, as potential Republican swing votes—Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska—voiced their support for a more in-depth background check of Kavanaugh.
Later, Flake said on CBS’s 60 Minutes that it was a move he would not have made if he was running for reelection. It was a maverick move, a role Flake increasingly has found himself assuming.
The Arizona native is a Mormon who served as a missionary in South Africa before graduating from Brigham Young University. He and his wife, Cheryl, have five children. He served six terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, starting in 2001, and won election to the Senate in 2012 after campaigning on a platform of decency and civility.
A sometimes vocal critic of President Donald Trump, Flake nonetheless overwhelmingly has voted to support the president’s policies—around 83.6 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight. But Flake also has ruffled party feathers, like when he opposed Trump’s travel ban and supported Democratic candidate Doug Jones in the U.S. Senate race in Alabama over GOP nominee Roy Moore, who faced accusations of sexual misconduct that allegedly took place when he was younger. Flake even donated $100 to Jones’ campaign, captioning a photo of the check on Twitter, “Country over Party.” In 2017, Flake codified his criticism of Trump in his book Conscience of a Conservative.
His outspokenness has cost him: In October 2017, haunted by a sinking approval rating, Flake announced his retirement, saying his candidness had been “a matter of duty and conscience.” His announcement followed news that Trump considered floating $10 million to Flake’s potential 2018 GOP challengers.
The move on Kavanaugh’s confirmation also cost him. Though his Republican colleagues stayed away from criticizing him personally, opinions castigating him soon flooded Twitter, and conservative commentators joined in. Fox News host Sean Hannity said the senator had “flaked in a big way” and revealed weakness by caving to the demands of Democrats. Another conservative commentator, Dan Bongino, said Flake “has no spine” and had “sold out the GOP.” Liberal-leaning pundits also criticized the move, with some expressing their belief it was a stunt to give Flake and undecided senators cover for if they later voted yes on Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
In a speech Monday at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, Flake said he sometimes feels “like a man temporarily without a party.” He also said, “My message here today is tribalism is ruining us. It is tearing our country apart.” It was the senator’s second appearance this year in the early presidential primary state, fueling speculation that he might challenge Trump for the GOP nomination in 2020.
Flake has previously expressed admiration for another independently minded lawmaker who hailed from Arizona, Sen. John McCain, who died in August from an aggressive form of brain cancer. In a tribute to McCain, Flake wrote that just as his colleague “taught the country the value of standing alone to do what is right, he taught me that as well.”
In a news conference directly after Friday’s committee vote, Coons said Flake’s move showed “the American people … that we are able to work together.” The Democrat from Delaware appeared to tear up as he talked about Flake’s concern for the health of Congress: “What Sen. Flake is trying to do is achieve a brief, credible investigation … and serve as a role model as he has for me today of someone who is willing to take a real political risk and upset many in his party.”