As Flake Warns of Tribalism, Some See Him as a Swing Vote on Kavanaugh

Oct 2, 2018

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., shown here with his wife Cheryl, received greater press attention Monday night than when he visited the NHIOP last March.
Credit Lauren Chooljian / NHPR

The national storm over Judge Brett Kavanaugh's potential Supreme Court confirmation blew into New Hampshire Monday, as Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, a key player in the confirmation hearings, arrived at Saint Anselm College to give a speech warning about “tribalism” in politics.

Flake’s speech was scheduled before he landed at the center of Kavanaugh’s fate on the Supreme Court. Last Friday, Flake pushed for a week-long pause in the hearings so the FBI could investigate the sexual assault allegations from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.

Many New Hampshire residents, along with the rest of the country, have been glued to their computers, smart phones and televisions for updates on the Kavanaugh vote. But Monday, many of them got their chance to dive right into the center of the storm.

Despite the raw, rainy weather, a couple dozen, mostly female protestors lined the entrance to the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, holding signs and testing out a few chants, like “bye-bye, Kavanaugh, bye-bye."

Cindy White drove down to Saint A’s from Hopkinton, because she felt this would be her best shot at voicing her hesitations about Kavanaugh. She carried a white poster board that read: “No White House limits on FBI investigation.”

“Jeff Flake seems to me, the Republican most likely to listen. He seems to have the most conscience here. I have a little hope for Murkowski and Collins, but a little more hope for him,” White said, referring to Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, two other Republicans who are seen as swing votes in Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

Some of the crowd and protesters outside of the N.H. Institute of Politics on Monday night.
Credit Lauren Chooljian / NHPR

For these shivering protestors, Flake represented a window of opportunity. If Flake had it in him to push for the FBI investigation, then maybe, they figured, their demonstration could convince him to vote against Kavanaugh entirely.

Flake has been confronted with hundreds of similar protests in these last few fraught days, whether it was two women in a Capitol Hill elevator or silent demonstrators earlier Monday in Boston.

But here, in the first-in-the-nation primary state, Flake was hoping for a more nuanced conversation.

“I’ve always heard that Saint Anselm is a safe place, populated by calm, reasonable people, I’m counting on this today - you have no idea,” he said from the podium at the NHIOP.

Striking an almost professorial tone, Flake told the audience that the partisan divide in Washington - or tribalism, as he calls it - is tearing the country apart, and he says it’s no way for “sane adults” to act.


“If you want to make America great as an elected official, be humble, conduct yourself in good faith, and when necessary, compromise to find solutions,” he said. “If the past week has taught me anything, it’s that this country is hungry for us to work together again on their behalf.”

It’s a description of the path Flake is charting out for himself -- one separate from President Donald Trump.

“We’ve got to make it so that indulgence in tribalism at the expense of what’s good for the country will be punished at the ballot box,” he said.”

And yet, when asked after his speech if he was running for president, Flake again demurred, telling the throngs of reporters that there’s too much going on in Washington to think about that.

But Nashua voters Bill and Aldrian Rostron say Flake is exactly the kind of politician they’re looking for. They’re independents, and they said they were struck by Flake’s decision to pump the breaks on the Kavanaugh vote.

“He’s put his convictions and his whole life on the line by walking away and saying what’s going on isn’t right, so I was really, really impressed,” Aldrian said.

When asked, the Rostron’s immediately said they’d both consider voting for Flake for president.

“Sure would, yes.” Bill said.

“I would give it a thought, I really would.” Aldrian said.

“[He] showed leadership - and we seem to be missing that recently,” Bill replied.

But while Flake may have found a friendly audience outside of the NHIOP auditorium, it’s unclear how big of an appetite there is for a Republican challenge to President Trump.

Waiting outside the building, Londonderry Republican Gregory Carson said he doesn’t see an appetite “at all.” Carson says he wasn’t a Trump supporter, and he objects to some of the things Trump says and does, but in his mind, Trump has “done everything he promised to do, and it’s kind of hard to complain about success.”