PROVO, Utah —

It was Sept. 28, 2018, and Jeff Flake, the Republican senator from Arizona, stood in an elevator as two women blocked the doors from closing.

Both were sexual assault survivors. They wanted to know why Flake was voting to confirm then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who had been accused of assaulting a girl at a party while in high school.

The dramatic scene was captured on video and quickly went viral.

For many, that may be the lasting image of Flake’s 18 years in Congress, and in some ways it embodies him: careful, considered, conflicted.

But Flake says it’s not that moment that best defines his tenure in office, particularly his last two years. That’s captured in a photo taken hours later, showing fellow senators hovered around him to hear why he wanted an FBI investigation into the allegations against Kavanaugh before taking a vote.

Time magazine titled its photo of the scene, “Man in the Middle.”

”The man in the middle,” says Flake. “I’ve lived in that space and it’s not a comfortable place.”

Since leaving Washington more than eight months ago, Flake still finds himself in the middle. He says there is no place for him right now in the GOP, which is going through “spasms of a dying party” and could be “doomed long-term” if President Donald Trump is re-elected. Sitting in a friend’s condo in Provo where he and his wife Cheryl are escaping the Arizona heat while they finish a new home in Mesa, the easy smile that seems to never leave Flake’s face drops when he says he won’t vote for Trump. In fact, he’s surveying the field of Democrats in search of a candidate.

Former Sen. Jeff Flake talks about what he is doing a year after he stepped down from the Senate and how he plans to remain a voice for conservatism during an interview in Provo, Utah, on Wednesday, July 31, 2019. | Steve Griffin

That’s borderline blasphemy in today’s world of hyperpartisan politics, and it surely makes the 56-year-old conservative stalwart even more of a pariah in today’s Republican Party. But in Flake’s mind, that says more about how American politics and the GOP has changed in the Trump era than it does about him.

Crossing the aisle is something Flake has always stood for. It’s consistent with the conservative principles he espouses in his book “Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle.” The title is a reprise of the bible of conservatism published in 1960 by Barry Goldwater, Flake’s political mentor, a one-time GOP presidential nominee and U.S. senator.

As Flake notes in the book, his Latter-day Saint ancestors were once Democrats. In the late 19th century, church leaders in his hometown of Snowflake, Arizona, assigned members of the congregation to a political party to ensure they were engaged across the national political spectrum. The story goes that those living west of Main Street would be Republicans and those east of Main would be Democrats. “There are to this day Flakes in town who have remained faithfully registered Democrats their whole lives and who are always up for a good argument at family gatherings,” he writes.

Flake wrote his take on conservatism while in the throes of his own political and personal crisis, spurred in part by Trump’s surprise election. In spring 2017, Flake escaped injury when a would-be assassin shot up a batting practice of GOP congressmen preparing for the annual Congressional Baseball Game. His 85-year-old father died that June. And his public stands against Trump’s conduct, but support for most of the administration’s policies, had alienated Flake from his Republican and Democratic colleagues.

He knew he’d face a primary challenger and his polling numbers didn’t look good. But just as critical to his decision not to seek reelection was the thought of standing on a stage next to Trump and feigning agreement with a rowdy crowd chanting the latest Trump taunt on Twitter.

”I couldn’t do it. No way,” he says.

Former Sen. Jeff Flake talks about what he is doing a year after he stepped down from the Senate and how he plans to remain a voice for conservatism during an interview in Provo, Utah, on Wednesday, July 31, 2019. | Steve Griffin

Since leaving office, Flake has continued voicing his views on the speaking circuit, as a contributor for CBS News and lecturing on college campuses. In September, Flake and his wife will move to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he will serve a 10-week stint as a resident fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School Institute of Politics. He will hold weekly group discussions on his passion: “bipartisanship in a partisan era and … the fate of the conservative movement and where it’s going in the Trump era.”

In some of his speeches posted on his website, Flake talks about growing up on the F-Bar Ranch in the high desert town of Snowflake. He tells of riding his horse to a high point to survey the land for damage or lost cattle and then dispatching the cowboys (some of them migrant workers from Mexico) to make repairs and round up the strays.

The scene serves as a metaphor for the audience to assess their social and political surroundings and get involved to mitigate the damage. It also reflects Flake’s approach to life whether serving in Congress, playing survivor on a deserted island (his latest survivor stint in the Marshall Islands was in June with a group of executives from the Utah tech firm Podium) or contemplating his next steps after the Senate.

A few days before leaving for a European vacation, Flake sat down with the Deseret News to discuss his survey of the state of American politics.

The questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Deseret News: In your book, you write about the Republican Party losing its way and ditching conservative principles in the 2016 election. How do you assess the future of the GOP if Trump is reelected?

Jeff Flake: I don’t think the president will be reelected. Many of us thought, I certainly did, that he wouldn’t be elected the first time. So it could happen. But if it does, I think that spells doom long-term for the Republican Party. Probably the best corollary is California and what happened there in the 1990s, when the Republican Party and Gov. Pete Wilson latched on to Prop 187, which was a measure to deter or to stop benefits to illegal aliens. It did rally the Republican base and gave Pete Wilson a second term. But over time, it turned off Hispanics to the Republican Party in California, and suburban women. So, since the mid-90s, only Arnold Schwarzenegger has been elected as Republican governor in California. And then he switched to be independent. It will probably be a generation before any Republican in California is elected statewide. So you may win a battle, but you lose the war. You can drill down on the base, and it may work in an election here or there, but at some point you run out of angry people.

DN: How do you feel about your affiliation with the GOP?

JF: I think we all know friends, extended family members or family members who just can’t do this anymore. I think that millennials have been walking away from the Republican Party for a while, along with some suburban women. Now they’re in a dead sprint. If you look at the last midterms, you will see that suburban women, the so-called soccer moms, those that came out and gave Republicans majorities in the Reagan era and after that, they look at the president and say that’s not my party and usually become independent.

DN: Will you leave the party?

JF: No. At some point, you always make the calculation if we see something irredeemable. I don’t think it is. I do think that we can become ourselves again. It’s going to be a lot easier to do after one term than two.

DN: Recently you’ve also expressed concerns the political pendulum may have swung so far in one direction it may not return to what was “normal.” What has happened that causes those concerns?

I never have and never will call the president a racist.

JF: When you change the political culture, like the president is doing, I’m not sure we have tested that as much. You don’t know how elastic it is, and if it will snap back. I think it was February, when (Democratic) Rep. Rashida Tlaib from Michigan said in a campaign speech, “we need to impeach the” and used a vulgar term. I tweeted out, “Just because the president uses crude language, shouldn’t give the rest of us license to do so. We ought to be better than this.” Within two days, there were 30,000 comments, not likes or dislikes, but comments on my tweet (and) the overwhelming sentiment was, “if the president speaks this way, then so must we.” That’s Trumpism. And I worry that it’s going to infect politics completely and you change the culture.

DN: The president’s recent attacks against House members who are people of color have been characterized as a deliberate attempt to energize his base. Why is it difficult for Republicans to call those attacks racism?

JF: I understand the reluctance to throw terms like that around. I never have and never will call the president a racist. But to try to deny that that was a racist statement, “Go back where you came from?” If you’re in Arizona and you talked to any of your Hispanic friends, they’ve all heard that again and again their whole lives, even if they’re sixth, seventh, eighth generation Arizonans. That’s an awful statement to make. And there’s no other way to characterize it. But that doesn’t give me or anybody license to say, “Well, because of that statement, the president is a racist.” I think you go too far. And I think most news organizations and others tried to draw a distinction. I’ve said in my book and from the Senate floor, you can’t expect Republicans to respond to every one of the president’s outrageous tweets, it would take all of your time and effort and you get so tired of getting mobbed by reporters who want to know your response. But there are times when the president goes so far that you have to speak out. And I thought that that was one of those. And if Republicans don’t, then it just becomes normalized.

DN: What did the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings reveal to Americans about the state of politics in Washington?

JF: It was long before Kavanaugh came along that the confirmation process became as polarizing and as difficult as it is. But I don’t think anybody from either party acquitted themselves very well in the Kavanaugh thing. I think the way the Democrats came forward with (the allegations of sexual assault) was done in a way not to necessarily find the truth, but to disqualify the nominee. By the same token, on the Republican side, I thought all along that the reasons that our leadership gave that we couldn’t have an FBI investigation were specious, it just didn’t make sense.

DN: What was your state of mind when you were confronted in the elevator by the sexual assault survivors?

JF: I was very unsettled. I just indicated that I would vote to advance (Kavanaugh’s) nomination. But I still didn’t feel good about not having done the FBI investigation. Some Republicans and conservatives dismissed (the women who confronted me) as activists paying for this. I’ve never felt that way because what I was hearing from them I’d been hearing from friends and extended family members. These allegations (of sexual assault) struck a chord with a lot of women in particular, and rightly so, because I think we all recognize one thing this #MeToo era has done is to make us all realize that we haven’t taken allegations like this seriously enough. It did have an impact on me. It wasn’t the only thing. But it helped me decide to say that I wouldn’t advance the nomination until we had an FBI investigation. I thought if he is going to be on the court, the country needs to feel better about the process. And having an FBI investigation, I think, made the country feel better. We can’t make FBI investigations public. But I do wish the country could have read that report. It was significant. It was substantive. I think more would feel better about where we landed had they been able to read that report.

DN: In the end, Republicans were upset at you because the investigation just delayed the inevitable and Democrats were critical because you voted to confirm Kavanaugh. Is there something that people didn’t understand that made your push for an investigation worth it?

JF: There is a picture that was one of Time’s photos of the year when my colleagues were all leaning over me and it was titled, “The Man in the Middle.” I very much felt like that photo for my last two years. To the partisans in your party, if you’re not happy with the president’s behavior, or his policies, then you’re an apostate. But on the left, you’ll never go as far as they want to go. And that’s the problem today. There is very little currency for deliberation. All of the political incentives right now say, when a big issue comes up like the debt or deficit or immigration or climate change or Kavanaugh, rush to your corner, state where you are, and don’t deviate, don’t indicate for a moment that you might be persuadable — that the hearing you might be holding might inform your vote, or that the investigation might somehow influence where you are, because as soon as you do, then you’re hit from all sides.

DN: Did you ever run to your political tribe when a tough vote came up?

JF: Yeah, on occasion. I mention one in my book on voting against TARP (the Troubled Asset Relief Program to stabilize the nation’s financial system in 2008). And there were other times that I hoped yes, and voted no. You find safety in numbers and think somebody else will carry my water. I’ve certainly been guilty of that.

What I would like is for the Republican Party to nominate someone else. That doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen.

DN: You have a long personal history with immigration, from working with migrants on your family ranch to involvement in bipartisan attempts for immigration reform. What do you make of the situation today at the border?

JF: In many ways this is a different issue than what we had in the past. (Working on the ranch) it was an open border where largely males who would come to work then return (to their country). But as border infrastructure was built up that made it tougher and more expensive to come, families started to come because they only wanted to cross the border once. But what I learned from that is the vast majority of those coming across just want a better life and make a contribution when they get here. I’ve always tried to keep that mind, when writing legislation to makes sure there is a path to citizenship. I have been very critical of how the administration has dealt with this issue, kind of a bumper sticker style of “build a wall,” as if that solves it, and try to rile people up this way. It is a very complicated and complex issue and we’re further away now than we’ve been in a long time to solving it.

DN: You mentioned you were watching the Democratic presidential debates on television. President Trump is most likely the Republican nominee. Is there anyone in the Democratic field you would vote for?

JF: I’m more conservative than any of the Democrats running for office. What I would like is for the Republican Party to nominate someone else. That doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen. And you can always vote for a third-party candidate, which I did last time, and I’m not ruling that out. I don’t think we’re there yet, when independents will win nationwide. So, I would like to vote for a responsible Democrat. I’ve worked closely with Michael Bennet. He’s a thoughtful, good man. Amy Klobuchar, I worked with her on a number of issues. Cory Booker has downplayed a lot of his bipartisanship. And Joe Biden. It’s been nice to hear him say, “I can work with the other side.” That’s not what primary voters want to hear. But it’s what the country needs to hear because it’s true. I wish we had a Republican candidate who would say the same.

DN: You’ve made it clear that you are not interested in running for the Republican nomination. But is another run for political office in your future?

JF: I’ve not ruled that out. But like I said, I want to let the fever cool. I’m not rushing into anything. And if I never ran for office again, 18 years in Congress is a good run.