One of Donald Trump’s most generous political benefactors is providing a six-figure donation to a super PAC devoted to unseating Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who has been fiercely critical of the president.
Robert Mercer, a reclusive hedge fund billionaire who was intimately involved in Trump’s rise and helped to bankroll his 2016 campaign, is contributing $300,000 to a super PAC supporting former state Sen. Kelli Ward, who is challenging Flake in a Republican primary next year.
It’s the latest sign that Trump’s political machine is preparing to take on Flake, whose persistent attacks have angered the president. The White House has met with Ward and two other Republicans who are mulling primary challenges to the Arizona senator, former state Treasurer Jeff DeWit and former state GOP Chairman Robert Graham.
A longtime Trump critic, Flake has made waves with the release of his new book, “Conscience of a Conservative.” He argues that his party is in denial about the Trump presidency and blames the GOP for his rise. Over the last week, Flake has launched a national TV tour in which he’s made the case that his party has taken the wrong course.
During the 2016 campaign, Flake refused to endorse Trump and called on him to withdraw after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which Trump was heard boasting about groping women. The senator refused to attend the GOP convention, saying that he had to stay home to mow his lawn.
His jabs rankled candidate Trump, who at one point said that he would be willing to spend $10 million of his own money to defeat Flake in a 2018 primary.
And during a press briefing last week, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to rule out the possibility that the president would help finance an anti-Flake primary effort.
“Sen. Flake would serve his constituents much better if he was less focused on writing a book and attacking the president" and more involved in "passing legislation,” she said.
Ties between the Mercer family and Trump run deep. Mercer’s daughter, Rebekah, is close to several of the president’s closest aides, including chief strategist Steve Bannon. In August 2016, Rebekah Mercer, a major GOP donor in her own right, played an instrumental role in engineering a shakeup that placed Bannon and now-White House counselor Kellyanne Conway atop Trump’s campaign.
Mercer also contributed to the pro-Ward super PAC, KelliPAC, during the 2016 campaign, when Ward unsuccessfully challenged GOP Sen. John McCain. Mercer is a primary funder of the pro-Trump website Breitbart, which published a number of flattering stories about Ward during her previous bid.
“We are so grateful to Mr. Mercer for his courageous support for Kelli Ward, a true conservative champion. Early investments in a campaign like this are so valuable,” said Doug McKee, Kelli PAC’s chairman, said in a statement. “Kelli is in prime position to carry her message of accountable, constitutional government all the way to the Unites States Senate. Interest from additional donors is pouring in, and we are confident that leadership like Mr. Mercer’s will allow us to run a robust winning effort all the way to November of 2018.”
A Mercer spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Flake is one of the most vulnerable GOP senators up for reelection in 2018, and many senior Republicans are worried that his manifesto will hurt his prospects — and further inflame tensions with the administration. Within Arizona, some of Trump’s biggest donors have been searching out a primary opponent to challenge the senator.
The president has yet to declare his support for any of Flake’s prospective opponents, yet he is keeping tabs on the primary. During a recent meeting in the Oval Office, Trump asked the Arizona GOP chairman, Jonathan Lines, for an update on the contest.