By Alexander Bolton and Scott Wong
March 19, 2016
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is facing what may be the toughest reelection of his Senate career in an unpredictable presidential year, when many voters are angry with Washington.
Early polls show McCain tied with his Democratic challenger, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.), at around 40 percent despite having nearly 100-percent name recognition in the state he has represented in either the Senate or House since 1983.
“The basic problem for John McCain is the same kind of thing that faces a lot of incumbents right now. He’s been there a long time. People are leery of Washington. They don’t like Washington,” said former Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe, who served 18 years alongside McCain in Arizona’s congressional delegation.
“This is a very tough challenge, probably the toughest race that he's faced since he was first elected,” Kolbe added.
McCain’s path to victory is complicated by the likelihood the GOP ticket will be headed by Donald Trump, who has an overwhelmingly negative rating among Hispanic voters, a powerful and growing electoral bloc in Arizona.
Trump has scheduled three events in Arizona Saturday with an eye on the winner-take-all presidential primary Tuesday. He will campaign with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose get-tough approach to illegal immigration has made him a national lightning rod.
Hundreds of Latino activists plan to protest Trump’s events.
If Trump, the Republican front-runner, clinches the nomination his effect on GOP candidates down ballot is hard to predict but many party strategists aren’t optimistic.
“I don’t see how Donald Trump helps any incumbent Republicans. I think he’s a drag on the ticket,” Kolbe said.
While it’s too early to tell just how serious a threat his Democratic opponent will pose, McCain’s taking it seriously. He plans to work around the state over the March recess to shore up his relations with potential voters.
Notably, he will skip the Trump rallies in Phoenix, Fountain Hills and Tucson.
McCain held town halls Friday in Mohave County in the sparsely populated northwestern corner of the state with a local electric coop and one with the chamber of commerce in Bullhead City.
Next week he’ll travel to the White Mountains in the west to hold several events with fellow Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), whose family is from the area.
The following week he’ll travel through Phoenix, Tucson, Sierra Vista and Prescott, with several other stops along the way.
“It will be a tough race. I think it is very hard to predict this year because of all of the unique elements of this political year both on the Democratic and particularly the Republican side,” said former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).
“That said, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Sen. McCain more energetic and engaged in a campaign effort than he is this time. He understands it’s a very unpredictable year. He has seen what’s happened to other candidates who have not taken their re-election seriously,” he added.
Two of McCain’s longtime colleagues, Sens. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) nearly lost in 2014 after they appeared to be caught sleeping by their opponents. They pulled out victories, but the close calls gave GOP leaders heartburn.
A Merrill Poll released this past week showed McCain and Kirkpatrick essentially tied at 41 and 40 percent, respectively. The poll also showed Trump and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner tied at 38 percent in the state.
Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, released a poll in early March showing that McCain has only a 26-percent approval rating and a whopping 63-percent disapproval rating.
“I’m hearing from voters that John McCain has changed after 33 years in Washington,” Kirkpatrick said in an interview with The Hill Friday. “They want a new voice in the Senate.”
Kirkpatrick, who raised $1.8 million in 2015, more than any other Senate Democratic candidate in state history, according to her campaign, will make every effort to tie McCain to Trump.
“With the really divisive and frankly racist comments that Trump has made about immigrants, he deserves condemnation,” Kirkpatrick said. “We can’t just look the other way. And yet John McCain has come out over and over and over again, saying that he will support Trump if he is the nominee.”
McCain’s campaign dismissed the recent polls as largely meaningless.
“A poll taken eight months before Election Day may be good fodder for political pundits, but it doesn't mean much in reality,” said communications director Lorna Romero.
She said the McCain campaign is confident that as voters tune into the race and compare McCain’s record with Kirkpatrick’s “forgettable tenure and clear record as a rubber stamp for liberal policies,” they’ll express more support for the longtime incumbent.
McCain had a tough primary in 2010 against former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, who initially appeared to have a good shot at beating him. But McCain, who is one of the best campaigners in the country — as evidenced by his impressive comeback in the 2008 GOP presidential primary — defeated Hayworth by more than 20 points after spending $21 million.
McCain has had a rocky relationship with local conservatives in recent years. The state party censured him for a “disastrous and harmful” liberal record in 2014. Many conservatives still haven’t forgiven him for spearheading the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in 2002. His lead role in drafting the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill 2013 didn’t help either.
The Senate primary isn’t until August, which means McCain may be distracted by having to protect his right flank until late in the race, leaving him less time to move to the center to take on Kirkpatrick. The good news for McCain is that his leading primary challenger, former state Sen. Kelli Ward, hasn’t yet made much of a splash. But McCain can’t take an easy primary race for granted either.
“There’s still a little bit of animosity between him and the base,” said Adam Deguire, a GOP strategist and former chief of staff to Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.). “That’s just lasting from his career in the Senate. There’s a lot of angst right now mostly because the environment of the electorate is just very angry.
“The unfortunate part for Sen. McCain is that it’s not just the past history he has with the base that’s going to affect him but the current mood of the electorate is going to trend away from anyone who is an incumbent, anyone who is a current Washington figure,” he added.
Deguire said the biggest X factor could be Trump and his effect on the electorate. Will he mobilize working-class voters to vote Republican or will he unleash a wave of Hispanics to register and vote Democratic?
“Sen. McCain and Ann Kirkpatrick’s race is going to boil down to who’s atop the ticket. I think you’re going to see this across the board nationally,” he added.
He said Trump is “igniting” people who have never voted in their life.
“In Arizona, you’re seeing a lot of folks in the base who are coming out who have never voted before because of Donald Trump,” he added.
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