Politics & Policy

McCain Faces Unexpectedly Tough Reelection Fight in Arizona

(Samantha Sais/Reuters)

John McCain knows what makes this election cycle so different from  years past: “Angry voters.”

McCain offered that blunt assessment of the road ahead last month. He is seeking reelection to his sixth term in the Senate and by rights he shouldn’t be worried: Since he first won the seat with a 21-point victory in 1986, no primary or general-election opponent has come even that close to knocking him off. He has all the advantages of incumbency — the deep political network, the massive war chest, the sky-high name ID — in a state that has gone Republican in every presidential election since 2000. And yet he finds himself facing perhaps the strongest challenger of his career in a year when Donald Trump has complicated the task facing down-ballot Republican candidates everywhere.

Nobody yet knows how Trump’s presence will affect Republican House and Senate contenders, and operatives on both sides of the aisle are skeptical of the breathless, apocalyptic claims of the past few weeks. But there’s no doubt that some of Trump’s comments, particularly about women and Hispanics, have the potential to hurt other Republicans on the ticket this fall. And the anti-establishment sentiment his nomination has harnessed could pose a danger to incumbents.

McCain would seem to be a test case for the Trump Effect. The five-term senator and 2008 GOP presidential nominee is running in a state that is 30 percent Hispanic. His opponent is Representative Ann Kirkpatrick, a woman and a top Democratic recruit. If the doomsayers are right and Trump’s drag on Republicans proves real, it will likely be felt by McCain.

“It certainly doesn’t help,” says Arizona’s junior senator, Jeff Flake, when asked if Trump will hurt McCain with Hispanics. He compares it to the situation he himself faced running in 2012, when Democrats successfully tied Republicans to problematic comments about rape made by Republican Senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock.

“Obviously, I had nothing to do with [the comments], but I think it just hurt all Republicans, particularly because it kind of played into the ‘war on women’ theme and everything that our opponents, the Democrats, were running at that time,” Flake says. “So even if you can’t be associated with Trump, I think it still depresses all Republicans.”

A recent poll from the Behavior Research Center found McCain and Kirkpatrick tied at 42 percent, which raised eyebrows for a number of Republicans. Representative David Schweikert, who polled the race last year when he was considering a primary challenge to McCain, says that McCain’s numbers didn’t look great then. According to their modeling, if turnout “looked just like previous cycles, it was a more difficult path” for McCain.

Publicly, McCain’s allies say they are confident he can weather whatever’s thrown at him. Flake and other supporters insist that McCain is the exception, the well-known and well-regarded politician who can survive any turbulence Trump creates. Polling shows McCain’s name identification among Arizonans around 100 percent. They all know who he is, and most of them already have an opinion of him. That, his supporters argue, will make it harder for Kirkpatrick to tie him to Trump. What’s more, he has $5.5 million in his campaign war chest and an organization intentionally “built to combat potential headwinds from the 2016 presidential election,” as campaign manager Ryan O’Daniel puts it in a memo released this. 

Senator Lindsey Graham, McCain’s close friend, who just a couple of weeks ago was forecasting death, disaster, and destruction for Republicans if Trump became the nominee, summed up the hopes of McCain’s allies succinctly: “I feel good about John McCain winning his election because he’s John McCain.”

Privately, some Republicans are concerned that McCain faces a harder path than most in toeing the line on Trump.

But privately, some Republicans are concerned that McCain faces a harder path than most in toeing the line on Trump. McCain himself has acknowledged as much in comments reported by Politico. Like many Republican elected officials, McCain has said he’ll back the party’s presidential nominee. But some are concerned that such a stance could be particularly damaging to the Arizona senator, undermining his reputation as a maverick with a willingness to buck the party line on issues such as immigration reform.

Kirkpatrick recognizes that potential weakness and has already begun attempting to exploit it. Since McCain is a known quantity, there’s not a lot that Democrats can do to rewrite the long-held perceptions voters have of him. So instead, in late February, Kirkpatrick released an ad arguing that her opponent had changed from the senator they used to know and love. The ad splices footage of some of Trump’s most divisive comments with video of McCain saying he’d support the real-estate mogul. “There was a time when his country mattered more than his political party,” the female narrator says. “But 30 years in Washington have changed John McCain.”

It’s a brutal ad, and provides a template that other Democratic hopefuls are likely to follow as the election goes on. This week, the liberal group People for the American Way began running a Spanish-language radio ad admonishing McCain to “stop doing Donald Trump’s bidding.”

Democrats have been preparing for exactly this moment. They knew they faced long odds in Arizona, but planned to be prepared to play in the state if the national environment gave them a gift as it had in 2012, when the Akin and Mourdock comments helped them win control of the Senate. Trump could be that gift, and Democrats have a top recruit in Kirkpatrick, who has won in a massive, rural swing district the past two cycles and is known for being a dogged campaigner.

Nonetheless, Democrats are only cautiously optimistic for now. “I think any time Democrats win in this state, we sort of need the stars to align,” says Arizona Democratic consultant Andy Barr. And if they do align, the race will be tight, he predicts. The question is whether antipathy toward Trump actually turns people out to vote against him. Hispanics were around 30 percent of the population in Arizona in 2012, according to census data, but exit polls showed that they made up just 8 percent of voters in that year’s general election.

#share#National environment aside, Kirkpatrick’s task could be made easier by the fact that McCain must contend with a primary challenge before he faces her. Republicans thus far have largely rolled their eyes at McCain’s primary opponents. Kelli Ward, the best known among them, once held a town hall as a state senator to address concerns about chemtrails. (Ward said she herself does not believe in them). Conservative groups that have funded primary challenges to incumbents in the past are not proffering support to McCain’s Republican rivals, though many of them would like to see him beaten. Early last year, Club for Growth president David McIntosh singled out Arizona as a primary where they would look to get involved. At the time, two Club favorites — Schweikert and Representative Matt Salmon — were considering entering the race against McCain. But both ultimately passed on the race, and the Club has so far has opted not to get involved.

None of McCain’s primary opponents are likely to pose a major challenge, but the lateness of the primary means he’ll have to contend with them for longer than he might like. The Arizona primary is not until August 30, one of the latest primaries on the calendar, which means that while the rest of the political world moves on to the general election, McCain will be fighting to fend off his Republican rivals and Kirkpatrick simultaneously.

And in a cycle that has exposed so many fissures within the GOP, it would only take one major donor who dislikes McCain to make the primary a bigger hassle than he and his supporters would like. Several major Republican donors have maxed out to Ward in the primary: Dallas philanthropist Elloine Clark, Wisconsin businessman Richard Uihlein, real-estate mogul John Peck, hedge-fund owner Sean Fieler, Colorado-based donor Tatnall Hillman, Vermont mega-donor Lenore Broughton, and the notoriously private billionaire Robert Mercer, a major Ted Cruz backer.

An initiative to legalize recreational marijuana use that will be on the ballot in November could also help Kirkpatrick if it energizes young, Democratic-leaning voters to turn out.

Last week, Republicans presented a show of force to boost McCain. Joni Ernst, Tom Cotton, Cory Gardner, David Perdue, and Dan Sullivan — five freshman senators seen as rising stars within the GOP — trekked out to Arizona during Congress’s recess to hold a fundraiser for their Arizonan colleague. According to Chuck Warren, a member of McCain’s finance committee who was invited and attended, the event had been scheduled at least a month ago, but the timing turned out to be conspicuous: It came just days after Trump secured the Republican nomination.

#related#The major focus of those in attendance was national security — Ernst, Sullivan, and Cotton are all veterans and sit on the Armed Services Committee, which McCain chairs. It’s an issue that tends to favor Republicans in elections, perhaps none more so than McCain, a former POW who has made defense policy his bread and butter in the Senate.

The subject of Trump came up too, says Warren, when an attendee asked the senators whether they felt it was time to get on board with the nominee.

“They all stressed that Donald Trump won these primaries fair and square. They didn’t talk about how it would affect John’s race,” he says.

As for how McCain himself approaches sharing a ticket with Trump, allies say the mechanics of the race remain the same as they did before.

“What happens at the top of the ballot or elsewhere on the ballot has an effect,” Flake says, but “you just press ahead. Raise money. Go out and campaign.”

— Alexis Levinson is the senior political reporter for National Review.

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