By Burgess Everett and Seung Min Kim
May 5, 2016
'If Donald Trump is at the top of the ticket,' the senator says in a recording obtained by POLITICO, 'this may be the race of my life.'
Publicly, John McCain insists Donald Trump will have a negligible effect on his campaign for reelection. But behind closed doors at a fundraiser in Arizona last month, the Republican senator and two-time presidential hopeful offered a far more dire assessment to his supporters.
“If Donald Trump is at the top of the ticket, here in Arizona, with over 30 percent of the vote being the Hispanic vote, no doubt that this may be the race of my life,” McCain said, according to a recording of the event obtained by POLITICO. “If you listen or watch Hispanic media in the state and in the country, you will see that it is all anti-Trump. The Hispanic community is roused and angry in a way that I've never seen in 30 years.”
The 2008 GOP presidential nominee is certainly the favorite in his race to win a sixth term in the Senate. But his remarks about the party’s presumptive nominee expose a deep well of concern about how Trump might damage the GOP’s chances in the battle for Senate control — especially in states like Arizona, Nevada and Florida, where Latinos make up a big chunk of voters. Republicans are defending two dozen seats this year, many in blue and purple states, vs. just 10 for Democrats — a daunting landscape even without Trump atop the ballot.
McCain has said he’ll support the nominee, and he is in better shape to hold onto his seat than many of his vulnerable Republican colleagues. But if Trump’s nomination turns out to be more than a minor drag on down-ballot Republicans, McCain — who’s expected to face Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, a credible Democratic challenger — could easily become a top target. One of his former top aides, Mark Salter, has already said he will support Hillary Clinton for president.
Trump, of course, entered the race promising to build a wall along the southern border and calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “murderers.” He’s toned down his rhetoric about undocumented immigrants, if only slightly, as he shifts to general election mode. But in one troubling sign for the GOP, polling in Florida this week revealed broad, lingering antipathy among Latino voters toward Trump. If that persists through the fall and extends to other states, it could cost the GOP crucial Senate seats in a year when they have almost no room for error.
Latinos make up 22 percent of eligible voters in Arizona, 18 percent in Florida, 17 percent in Nevada, 14 percent in Colorado and 10 percent in Illinois, according to Pew Research. All are states with competitive Senate elections, where GOP candidates will have to decide whether to break with Trump.
“I would argue that we are living a [Prop.] 187 moment at a national level,” said Maria Teresa Kumar, president and CEO of Voto Latino, referring to the controversial 1994 ballot measure in California widely blamed for turning the state blue. “It’s very, very tough for a senator to get out of that.”
Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, the only Republican senator in 2012 to win a state carried by President Barack Obama, fought off Mitt Romney’s rhetoric on "self-deportation" and distanced himself from the candidate's “47 percent” remarks. He says Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.), running for the open seat of retiring Minority Leader Harry Reid, can do the same. But a Trump nomination, Heller said, means “it just takes more work.”
Heck “has a great relationship with the Hispanic community. And he doesn’t have the same weaknesses that Trump has, mainly [with] women and other groups,” Heller said.
The challenge for Heck, who told a Nevada TV station Tuesday he will support the GOP nominee but is focused “solely” on his own race, comes in the form of Democratic candidate Catherine Cortez Masto, who is likely to link Heck to Trump every day until November.
Cortez Masto, who would be the first Latina senator, called the Trump effect “personal.” Immigrant-rights activists say the presumptive Republican nominee could hurt Heck as he battles Sharron Angle in a primary and, if he prevails, faces a competitive race against Cortez Masto.
“He’s taken eight votes in the House” against Obama’s executive actions on immigration, Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigration reform group America’s Voice, said of Heck. “Imagine Catherine Cortez Masto running ads in Spanish saying, ‘Joe Heck has the same position as Donald Trump.’ He supports Donald Trump. That’s going to be tied around his neck.”
Activists such as Sharry are deep into a massive mobilization campaign of Latino and immigrant voters in Nevada, Florida and Colorado that’s led by prominent advocacy groups including America’s Voice, the Latino Victory Project and the Center for Community Change Action.
Though much of their firepower in the $15 million campaign is trained on Trump and his rhetoric, officials from the campaign — called the Immigrant Voter Project — say they are just as focused on down-ballot races.
“The bottom line is that there is a price to be paid for belonging to a party that explicitly endorses a very virulent anti-immigrant agenda,” said Kica Matos, director of immigrant rights and racial justice at the Center for Community Change Action. “You can’t divorce John McCain from the person who is more likely than not the Republican presidential nominee.”
The nonpartisan National Association for Latino Elected and Appointed Officials projected that 13.1 million Latinos will cast ballots in November. That would be a 17 percent increase in turnout and an 8.7 percent boost in the Latino share of the electorate from 2012, when Obama trounced Romney by 44 points among Latino voters.
In Nevada, NALEO officials predicted that more than 194,000 Latinos will vote this fall, which would be a 24 percent increase in turnout from 2012. Nearly 1.7 million Latinos are projected to vote in Florida, a 20 percent boost in turnout from four years ago, if accurate.
In Florida, Sen. Marco Rubio would offer the GOP its best chance to keep the seat with Trump as the nominee.
Democrats in Florida aren’t quite sure what to prepare for given the crowded GOP primary. Rep. Ron DeSantis and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera told the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday that they will support Trump, though Lopez-Cantera has been critical of Trump’s rhetoric and immigration proposals. Carlos Beruff, a wealthy GOP candidate, is calling for the party to unite behind Trump, while Rep. David Jolly called on Trump to withdraw from the race in December, walked that statement back and now says he doesn’t know whether he will vote for the business mogul.
Regardless of who emerges, Democrats will do everything to link Trump to him.
“One thing that I hear continually, especially in the Hispanic community, is that they are not going to support Donald Trump,” said Rep. Patrick Murphy of Florida, who is competing for the Democratic nomination against Rep. Alan Grayson.
The numbers bear out Murphy’s claim. Gallup found in March that 77 percent of Hispanics in the United States had an unfavorable view of Trump, while just 12 percent had a favorable view of him.
Latino Decisions, a Latino-specific polling firm that has done work for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, reported even higher figures. In an April poll, Trump earned an unfavorable rating from 87 percent of Latino voters.
In a late-April interview in the Capitol, McCain said his reelection bid is “not particularly” different than past campaigns despite Trump likely being at the top of the ticket. His brand in Arizona, McCain said, is strong enough to withstand any fallout from Trump.
McCain has spent decades building his credentials with the Latino community. He's been a persistent champion of immigration reform and won the endorsement this year of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the first time the group has endorsed a candidate. He’s opposed Trump’s statements on immigrants for months, and aides say he will continue to do so.
“I believe that people will judge me on what I’ve done and more importantly what I can do,” McCain said in an interview last week. “People really do know me and know what I’ve done.”
At the fundraiser on April 8, though, McCain admitted Trump is an X-factor.
“Frankly there’s an element of nativism in it as well, as you know. The first wedge that Donald Trump had that gave him notoriety was, ‘Build a wall,’ ‘rapist,’ ‘murderers,’ etc.,” McCain said at the Phoenix fundraiser in April. “And so, this is going to be a tough campaign for me.”
It’s the perfect year for Kirkpatrick, whose House seat is perpetually competitive, to put her name on a statewide ballot. In an interview, she said as long as McCain continues to back Trump in the presidential contest, the business mogul will continue to do damage.
“Latino voters in Arizona, and especially young Latino voters, are going to play a huge role in who will represent Arizona for the next six years,” Kirkpatrick said. “They are absolutely appalled by Trump’s hateful rhetoric.”
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