White House meeting suggests strain between Trump, Flake

LOS ANGELES (AP) - A conservative Republican who is running to unseat Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake said Monday she has met with White House officials about the campaign.

The June meeting in Washington points to uneasy ties between President Donald Trump and Flake, a Republican who was an outspoken critic of the billionaire businessman in last year's presidential contest.

"I was encouraged," Kelli Ward said of the meeting, but she wouldn't divulge details of what was discussed or who attended the sit-down.

The former state senator, who sought to unseat Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain in 2016, called Flake ineffective and a drag on the Trump agenda in the Senate.

Ward acknowledged that ousting an incumbent is difficult but pointed to Trump's surprise win in 2016 and added, "times have changed."

Flake, a former congressman, is facing the possibility that he could face multiple GOP challengers in the 2018 primary in a bid for a second term.

The senator has said he didn't vote for Trump and supports the North American Free Trade Agreement, a deal the president intends to renegotiate or dismantle. But Flake has pointed out he has supported the president's Supreme Court and cabinet picks.

He hasn't said how he will vote on the Republican health care bill, but recently applauded the inclusion of an amendment that would allow insurers to sell bare-bones, low-cost coverage.

Another potential Senate candidate, former state Republican chairman Robert Graham, has met with donors about the contest and has purchased website addresses that could be used in a campaign. State Treasurer Jeff DeWit, who served as chief operating officer for the Trump campaign, is also considered a possible contender.

Flake's relationship with the White House has caused discomfort within the state GOP, and talk of a possible primary challenge has been going on for months, said Parralee Schneider, the party's first vice chairman.

"When you start saying negative things about your president, that doesn't sit well with this woman," she said. "We let Democrats do that."

Bruce Ash, one of the state's Republican National Committee members, expressed confidence that Republicans will hold the seat next year.

"The more the president is under fire from various directions, the more Republicans in Arizona support him and his agenda, and Republicans that are running for re-election," Ash said.