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U.S. Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) walks past journalists after announcing he will not run for reelection on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, U.S. October 24, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts - RC115CA83EE0

Former Arizona GOP chair Robert Graham considering a run for Flake’s seat

Former Arizona Republican Party chairman Robert Graham said Tuesday he is weighing a Senate run in the wake of Sen. Jeff Flake’s announcement that he won’t seek re-election in 2018.

Graham had been rumored as a possible Senate candidate even before Flake, R-Ariz., sent shock waves through the political world Tuesday by announcing that he would retire next year rather than seek a second term in office.

But in a phone interview shortly after the news of Flake’s decision broke, Graham acknowledged he was seriously considering mounting a bid for Flake’s Senate seat.

“I’m being encouraged by a lot of people” to run, Graham said. “We’re going to weigh every option.”

Graham has solid name recognition with Republican voters and donors in Arizona, which could give him a leg up if he decided to jump into the race. Graham was elected chairman of the state’s Republican Party in 2013 and served in the post until he stepped down in January.

Graham also served as a surrogate for President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and is plugged into national Republican politics.

Trump met with Graham and several other Republicans reportedly eyeing Flake’s seat before a rally in Phoenix in August, a public sign of the president’s bitter feud with the state’s junior senator.

Flake refused to endorse Trump last year and has been one of his most outspoken Republican critics in Congress. Flake criticized the GOP’s direction Tuesday in comments that appeared aimed at the president, though he didn’t call Trump out by name.

Graham said he had received “encouragement” from the White House to run against Flake even before the senator’s announcement Tuesday, though he said he did not receive any assurance that Trump would back him if he decided to run.

The White House has “been supportive in a lot of different ways but they haven’t made that kind of commitment yet,” Graham said, referring to a possible endorsement by Trump. Graham said the White House had called him Tuesday as well.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

It’s too early to tell how Trump will approach the Arizona race, now that Flake is stepping down. Flake’s decision opens the door to what will surely be one of the most closely watched races of the 2018 midterm election.

Earlier this year, Trump backed Sen. Luther Strange of Alabama in the special election for Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ former Senate seat.

But the move backfired, as Strange — the establishment candidate in the race — lost to Roy Moore, a former judge and outsider candidate allied with the far-right wing of the party who campaigned on a promise to take on Republican leaders in Washington.

In Arizona, the GOP primary field for Flake’s seat could get crowded, and it will likely showcase the deep divides with the Republican Party. Kelli Ward, a conservative former state legislator, has already announced her candidacy. In addition to Graham, Arizona Treasurer Jeff DeWit is also reportedly considering a run for Flake’s seat.

Ward has been endorsed by Stephen Bannon, Trump’s former White House chief strategist, who earlier this year declared “war” on the Republican establishment.

Ward said in a statement Tuesday that “Arizona voters are the big winner in Jeff Flake’s decision to not seek re-election.” She added, “they deserve a strong conservative in the U.S. Senate who supports President Trump and the ‘America First’ agenda.”

But Graham said Republicans in Arizona and Washington are concerned Ward would struggle in a general election against Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who is widely expected to capture the Democratic nomination.

“Kyrsten Sinema is a fierce competitor. She’s smart strategically,” said Graham. “People are saying there’s a real risk we might lose the seat.”

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