WASHINGTON — US Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, facing perhaps the most difficult re-election of his 33-year political career, continued to walk a tightrope this past week with his tepid endorsement of the GOP’s polarizing standard-bearer, Donald Trump.
The two men have a famously rocky history. Last year, Trump questioned McCain’s heroism, while McCain has rebuked Trump's vow to bring back waterboarding. McCain—who skipped the GOP convention this month to campaign—has said Trump espouses "uninformed and indeed dangerous statements on national security," and that he “strongly” disagrees with him on some issues.
Yet he supports Trump “as the nominee of the party.”
Observers say that the senator’s perfunctory pledge of support for the brash real-estate mogul could take a very different turn later this summer. For now, McCain’s messaging must thread the needle because of his challengers in both parties: Tea-Party-backed former state senator Kelli Ward in an Aug. 30 primary, and Arizona Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democrat who is running in the general election Nov. 8.
If McCain prevails against Ward, he may no longer feel beholden to placate Trump voters needed in the primary, the thinking goes, and he could actually join the chorus of mostly Democratic claims that Trump is unfit to be commander-in-chief.
“Right now, he’s offering what I would call pro-forma support to Trump,” said Arizona-based pollster Michael O'Neil, who co-hosts KTAR Phoenix’s radio show, “The Think Tank,” where McCain appeared earlier this month.
“He hasn’t gone any further than that for fear of infuriating the Tea Party or far-right, who would just love to say he’s an ally of Hillary and is therefore the devil incarnate. If he gets through the primary, after the primary, I expect him to distance himself further from Trump,” O’Neil said.
Endorsed by former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, Trump won the state’s GOP primary in March with a resounding 47 percent of the vote. McCain must avoid alienating those voters, but Trump’s extreme foreign policy statements put pressure on McCain to respond, analysts say.
Trump, in a New York Times interview, appeared to dismiss a foundational principle of US national security policy when he said if Russia attacked the Baltic states he would decide to come to their aid based on whether those countries had “fulfilled their obligations to us.”
“First of all, he couldn’t do it,” McCain said. “On 9/11, it was the United States that was attacked—not Estonia, not Latvia, not France. And our allies, our NATO allies, joined us in going to Afghanistan to defeat al-Qaeda where the 9/11 attacks came from. Well over 1,000 young men from these countries have died in Afghanistan in the fight against al-Qaeda after we were attacked. They weren’t attacked, we were.”
“Many of them are spending more, and it’s not enough, but to base that as a [criteria for] membership or non-membership in our alliance, it’s just — it’s beyond any rational approach I have ever seen,” McCain said.
At home, polling suggests McCain is on shaky ground. For a long-time incumbent, he is not polling favorably, with only a 30 percent approval rating, according to a poll from Democratic-leaning firm Public Policy Polling. In the same poll, he only edged out Kirkpatrick with 42 percent to her 40 percent, with 19 percent of voters undecided.
If Latinos are motivated by Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric to vote in large numbers, it could tip the balance against McCain and other down-ballot Republicans. The National Association for Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) projects 13.1 million Latinos are expected to cast ballots in 2016, a 17 percent increase in turnout and an 8.7 percent increase in the Latino share of the vote from 2012.
Clinton strategist Joel Benenson said Trump’s unpopularity with minority voters could make Clinton more competitive in states that Democrats have historically failed to carry, including Arizona, though a campaign trail appearance for her there was “to be determined.”
“I think it does put in play seriously states like Arizona,” Benenson said. “We have the ability to put them on defense in more states.”
McCain and Kirkpatrick are both courting Latino voters. McCain has the endorsement of the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and he can tout his co-sponsorship of a comprehensive immigration-reform bill in 2013 that included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The effort ultimately ran aground in the House.
Yet Kirkpatrick is blasting McCain with his past. In June, the congresswoman launched a campaign spot that featured snippets from McCain’s “Complete the Danged Fence” ad from 2010. The new video highlights his pro-border fence position, using the caption, “McCain doesn’t want you to know who he really is.”
As is now the case with Clinton and Trump, it’s common for presidential candidates to see elevated poll numbers in the wake of party-convention hoopla. That means a more accurate barometer of the candidates’ chances of success will come in late August, O’Neil said. If Trump is losing badly and looks like an albatross to down-ballot GOP candidates, that is the likeliest time for them to distance themselves from him.
“They’ll be with him if it’s close, but if it looks like a rout, you’ll start to see people running from Trump,” O’Neil said.
Republican candidates appear to have permission to distance themselves from Trump if necessary. National Republican Congressional Committee Chair Greg Walden, an Oregon congressman, said at the GOP convention that the party’s down-ballot candidates are “running their own races,” independent of the presidential contest.
Few candidates are as familiar to the American public as McCain, who ran for president in 2008 as a straight-talking maverick and who still brands himself as a hawkish foe of government waste. Before now, he has been formidable enough not to attract an opponent as credible as Kirkpatrick, who represents a district larger than New England.
Kirkpatrick is already pressuring McCain to put more distance between himself and Trump’s statements on immigrants and NATO.
“At such an important moment for our nation, John McCain has refused to stand up to Donald Trump and put our national security first. That’s not leadership or ‘straight talk,’ and it’s certainly not what our country needs,” Kirkpatrick said in a statement.
For now, McCain has stayed on-message about Trump, cognizant that the local Tea Party movement has him in its crosshairs. The Republican apparatus in Maricopa County, which makes up 60 percent of the state, censured McCain in 2014 with a formal resolution saying he voted with Democrats too often and “abandoned our core values and has been eerily silent against liberals.”
The stage is set for McCain to lose to an insurgent like Ward, according to Chris Wilson, the former chief of Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s data and polling operation. Republicans are rejecting establishment candidates for new voices, and Ward, who resigned midway through his second term to run for the Senate, is a “serious candidate who you can see being a senator,” Wilson argued.
That said, McCain has taken the race seriously by campaigning at home and spending on campaign ads—and that could save him, Wilson said.
“He campaigns indefatigably, and you can really overcome a lot of negatives just by running a real campaign,” Wilson said.
McCain has focused on Kirkpatrick, airing ads that associate her with the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, while touting his own credentials on national security. On Monday, McCain launched an ad that juxtaposes images of Kirkpatrick with FBI Director James Comey chastising Clinton over her email use.
"For someone who claims to be a voice for Arizona, Democrat Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick spends very little time talking to voters," McCain campaign communications director Lorna Romero said in a statement. "After nearly a decade in office, her only record of accomplishment is serving as a rubber-stamp for President Obama’s failed policies that are hurting Arizona."
Since Congress’ summer recess began, McCain has been crisscrossing the state, campaigning at the Grand Canyon, announcing the endorsements of municipal officials and touting his efforts on local issues. Before he left Washington, Defense News asked McCain what case he would be making to Arizona voters.
“All the things I have done and will do for the state of Arizona, whether it’s a fish hatchery or the widening of a highway, but also national security,” McCain said in an interview. “I believe my credentials on national security — I say with sizable ego — are unmatched, and the world is on fire.”