Frequent Trump critic Sen. Jeff Flake to visit New Hampshire as 2020 looms

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(Source: CNN) (Source: CNN)

By Ashley Killough, CNN

(CNN) - Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, a vocal critic of President Donald Trump, will stop in the early presidential primary state of New Hampshire on Friday, adding fuel to speculation that the retiring senator will launch a GOP challenge against the sitting President in 2020.

"I'm just going for the weather," Flake quipped this week, talking about his upcoming trip.

[RELATED: Arpaio suggests Flake committed treason, calls for limits on criticizing president]

The senator from Arizona, who was facing a tough re-election bid and decided not to run for a second term, isn't knocking down the idea of a presidential campaign, especially against a man who Flake has accused of "charting a very dangerous path" for the country.

"I'm not ruling it out," Flake told CNN when asked about 2020. "But it's not in my plans."

The senator will speak at the Politics & Eggs series, a must-do stop for potential presidential contenders hosted by the New England Council and the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College.

[RELATED: Jeff Flake rips Trump: A president 'who cannot take criticism ... is charting a very dangerous path']

In the year leading up to the 2016 New Hampshire primary,18 candidates or potential candidates spoke at the event, including Trump, who would go on to win the state's GOP primary by a landslide. Trump is set to return here Monday for an event focused on the opioid epidemic.

Flake said he plans to talk about how to widen the Republican Party's base, and he pointed to the special election in Pennsylvania this week in which a Democrat is poised to win a US House seat in a Republican district that Trump won by nearly 20 percentage points in 2016.

"I think what happened in Pennsylvania ... was a big wake-up call that we can no longer simply drill down on the base and expect to win elections. We got to broaden our appeal," Flake said, previewing his New Hampshire speech. "That's what this is about: country before party."

[READ MORE: Sen. Jeff Flake, vocal Trump critic, won't seek re-election]

Expanding the GOP tent was a theme that multiple Republicans -- Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, John Kasich and Chris Christie, to name just a few -- attempted to champion in the 2016 race. But their message failed to resonate with primary voters compared with Trump's "America First" rhetoric. Others have argued that enough Republicans would have supported the "broaden the base" message, but there were too many candidates preaching the same thing and the vote was divided.

In a blistering speech at the National Press Club on Thursday in Washington, Flake described Trump as a "chaotic" President who has "no strategic brilliance" and has damaged the country's institutions. Using lofty, almost campaign-style rhetoric, he lobbied for a return to civility and explained why he's willing to lead that fight.

"If one voice can do such profound damage to our values and to our civic life," he said, "then one voice can also repair the damage, one voice can call us to a higher idea of America, one voice can act as a beacon to help us find ourselves once again after this terrible fever breaks -- and it will break."

[RELATED: Jeff Flake's kamikaze mission against Donald Trump just ended]

Flake's anti-Trump crusade this past year has marked a stunning rebuke of a president from a senator of the same party, and while some Republicans have criticized the President, none have matched the degree to which Flake has scorched Trump. His biggest complaints involve the President's attacks on the media, his track record of telling falsehoods and what Flake describes as "dysfunctional" leadership from the White House.

Trump has returned the fire. He told a small group of Republicans he was prepared to spend $10 million on defeating Flake in the primary, and he publicly offered support on Twitter for one of the senator's GOP challengers last year when it appeared Flake would run for re-election. He's also referred to the senator and former US congressman as "Flake(y)" and "unelectable" on Twitter.

While the Democratic bench is filling up with, by some estimates, close to two dozen potential candidates, the list of possible Republican challengers is much shorter, with Flake, Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich, Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas most frequently mentioned, among others, by pundits.

[RELATED: Flake's bow-out could mean rush of Arizona GOP candidates]

Of the group, Flake has been the most directly outspoken against the President. He delivered a major speech on the Senate floor targeting Trump and wrote an entire book blasting his own party for enabling Trump's success.

"Never has a party abandoned, fled its principles and deeply held beliefs so quickly as my party did in the face of the nativist juggernaut," he said Thursday at the National Press Club. "We have become strangers to ourselves. Even as we pretend everything is fine."

The last major primary challenge against a sitting president was in 1992, when former Nixon adviser Pat Buchanan unsuccessfully ran against George H.W. Bush. Any candidate who challenges Trump faces long odds. According to a poll by the University of New Hampshire, 60% of Republican primary voters say they plan to vote for Trump in the 2020 GOP primary, as of last month.

[SPECIAL SECTION: Arizona Politics]

Fergus Cullen, a former New Hampshire state GOP chairman, noted that many incumbent presidents who have drawn serious primary challenges have failed to win re-election in the end: President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, President Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Bush in 1992.

"One question is whether the purpose of the (2020) challenge will be to win, or to serve as a vehicle for principled members of the party to signal disgust," said Cullen, who identifies as a "proud" Never Trumper.

Flake acknowledged Thursday that a primary bid will be a difficult fight due to the President's heavy support among the base.

"I think that could turn and will turn and must turn. But that is the case right now," he said. "It would be a tough challenge for anyone to take, and I just hope someone does it."

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