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The Story of Two Senators, Picked to Live on a Desert Island, Work Together and Have Their Lives Taped

Five years ago, Senator Jeff Flake, then a member of the House of Representatives, went to a deserted island in the Marshall chain. Flake had long yearned to answer the call of the wild—not the desert of his Arizona youth, but a different sort. "Everything from Shackleton to Drift, I think I've read them all," Senator Flake told me over the phone recently. "And I just always wondered if I could survive if I was marooned on an island by myself." Flake spent seven days on the island with a catalogue’s worth of REI gear. He survived to write about it afterwards in the Style section of The Washington Post. 

Flake didn’t stick around long enough to befriend any sports equipment, a la Castaway, but the experience was so lonely he found himself counting the hermit crabs that wandered through his camp. When he returned to the island during the Senate’s August recess, he brought his colleague Martin Heinrich—and the entire camera crew of the Discovery Channel’s extreme survivalist show Naked and Afraid. The senators kept their clothes on and filmed their own one-hour reality program. The premise is that Flake, a libertarian Republican from Arizona, and Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, spend six days and six nights working together to survive. Discovery Channel is calling it Rival Survival and it will air October 29 at 10 pm.

Flake and Heinrich hatched the idea during a marathon voting session last March. The senators sat next to each other and struck up a conversation about spear fishing. After comparing photos of their catches on their phones (“Heinrich’s were bigger,” Flake says), Flake suggested they do a survival trip to prove a point to their gridlocked colleagues about working together. He meant it as a joke, but as the gag evolved to incorporate a television show, the duo decided it wasn’t a bad idea.

They approached Discovery, offering to take their own footage with GoPro cameras. The executives at Discovery offered up the Naked and Afraid camera crew and dropped them on the island in the middle of a 700,000 square mile shark sanctuary in the Pacific. The senators brought no water or food, and Discovery gave them just three items. (The only one that’s been revealed is a machete, which Flake used mostly to hack open coconuts.) The two men “were committed to being pragmatic,” says Sean Foley, Rival Survivor’s showrunner. The show’s previews feature more than a few shots of the senators trying to start a fire and drinking from coconuts.

Still, they failed to leave the politics completely in Washington. When Heinrich showed Flake how to eat a giant clam, Flake teased that Republicans are better at killing and Democrats at eating. Heinrich replied that Flake’s been spending too much time with Paul Ryan. Flake also joked that it was the first time he ever slept with a Democrat. 

Now that they’re back in Washington, the two senators are quick to nominate colleagues to follow in their footsteps. Heinrich nominated Speaker of the House John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as Congress’ next castaways. Flake suggested Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. "If they survived six days, we would be able to get legislation to the floor. If they didn't survive," Flake paused, "we'd be able to get legislation to the floor."

Would the senators leave anyone on the island? After a discussion on congressmen who abuse rules and options like the filibuster, Senator Heinrich joked that he has a short list. Flake was more forgiving. "Maybe some for an extended week," he said. "I'm not gonna name names. Because I don't have to.”

An earlier version of this story described Naked and Afraid as a dating and survivalist show. Naked and Afraid is a show where participants are challenged to survive on a deserted island without clothing.