It’s been just over 72 hours since years-old video was released of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaking lewdly about grabbing women by the genitals. But on Monday night, it was former Republican presidential nominee John McCain in the hot seat. Facing off in a debate with his Democratic opponent, Representative Ann Kirkpatrick, McCain was pushed to defend his decision to un-endorse Trump.
In doing so, McCain became a test case for the handful of Republicans in competitive Senate races who publicly broke with the party’s nominee this weekend, and now find themselves in a politically perilous position. On the one hand, while un-endorsing Trump was a popular decision among some voters, many in the Republican base still back him. On the other, Democrats are working hard to portray these eleventh-hour defections as craven political maneuvers. And in a moment of high anxiety and uncertainty, when Republican politicians are still trying to gage the political impact of the video, those in competitive races want badly to hold onto as many supporters as they possibly can.
The question came just ten minutes into the hour-long debate.
“The presidential nominee of your party has made controversial remarks about women, Mexican immigrants, Muslims, disabled people, and prisoners of war — including you,” said the moderator, teeing up the question. “Over the weekend you withdrew your support for Donald Trump. One of our social media questions has just come in — this is from Dave in Northern Arizona, who’s basically asking, What took you so long?”
I’m in the arena. If someone wants to say something disparaging about me, I understand that. I don’t understand it when it’s said about other men and some women who have been in prison. I did not like it. I spoke out strongly against it. I spoke out strongly on several other issues where I thought Mr. Trump was absolutely wrong. I’ve not been shy about it. The son of the Khan family, a man who literally sacrificed his life to save others as he approached an IED. All of those things I thought were really wrong.
But then, when Mr. Trump attacks women and demeans the women in our nation and our society, that is a point where I just have to part company. It’s not pleasant for me to denounce the nominee of my party. He won the nomination fair and square. But I have daughters. I have friends. I have so many wonderful people on my staff. They cannot be degraded and demeaned in that fashion. And so I believed that I had to withdraw my support, just as I cannot support Hillary Clinton.
Asked whom he would vote for instead, McCain said he might write in South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham. His level of seriousness was unclear.
There has been little intrigue in this race in recent months, with polls consistently showing McCain leading Kirkpatrick by 16 points or more. But while he might have a cushion, McCain evidently wants to keep as many Trump voters as possible in his fold. Arizona has given its electoral votes to the Republican presidential nominee in every election but one since 1952. And with uncertainty about what will happen once Trump’s lewd remarks have made their way into the political bloodstream, Republicans cannot take anything for granted now. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted following the release of the videotape found Clinton leading Trump by eleven points in a four-way race. That’s a worrying number for Republicans. Down-ballot candidates, they believe, can outpoll Trump — but only to a point. If Trump were to lose by too large a margin, they fear, there might be no helping other Republicans on the ballot with him.
That is perhaps why McCain went so hard after Clinton during the debate. He deemed her to have “disqualified herself to be president of the United States,” attacked her for using a private server for her e-mails as secretary of state, and accused her of mishandling the terrorist attacks in Benghazi and lying about it.
“When,” McCain asked, trying to turn things on his opponent, “is congresswoman Kirkpatrick going to renounce her support for Hillary Clinton?”
McCain skirted the significance of the fact that he, the party’s former standard-bearer, would not support the party’s current nominee. But, he said, “I worry about the future of the Republican party. We’re going to have a lot of work to do after this election is over.”
He expressed far more confidence about his own political future.
“The people in this country and the people of Arizona know me,” he said when asked if backing Trump had hurt his credibility. “That’s why there’s a wide disparity in the polling data.”