By Theodoric Meyer
July 19, 2016
John McCain has spoken at every Republican National Convention since 1984. Eight years ago, he was the headliner, as he accepted the party’s presidential nomination. But as the first speakers took the GOP stage Monday in Cleveland, the Arizona senator was standing in a dim hotel ballroom 1,700 miles away, trying to avoid talking about Donald Trump.
Was Trump the reason he was skipping the convention this year? “No,” McCain told reporters.
Did he still support Trump? “Yes.”
But as McCain addressed a local chamber of commerce luncheon, the microphone inoperative and the room darkened after an unexpected power outage, the longtime senator still hinted at the reason why so many Republican senators facing tough reelection races, including himself, aren’t in Cleveland this week.
“We now have two candidates for president of the United States that overwhelmingly the American people disapprove of and don’t trust,” McCain said, riffing on the need for the GOP to regain voters’ confidence.
Trump has tied Senate Republicans in knots this year, as they balance party loyalty with the need to win swing states and maintain their majority. New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte is “supporting” Trump but not “endorsing” the nominee; Illinois' Mark Kirk rescinded his endorsement of Trump after the presidential candidate’s comments about a Hispanic judge drew intense criticism. But perhaps no senator is walking a tougher, tighter line on Trump than McCain.
Trump won Arizona decisively in the primary, and openly rejecting him would be a big risk — both in the general election and in Arizona’s Aug. 30 primary, when McCain faces a tea party-aligned former state lawmaker, Kelli Ward. But Arizona’s eligible-voter population is also more Latino than any battleground Senate state this year, and Democrats there are working furiously to register them to vote against Trump and the rest of his party.
Meanwhile, McCain’s Democratic opponent, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, is his strongest general-election adversary in decades. McCain has never won less than 56 percent of the vote in in Arizona, but Kirkpatrick has stayed close in recent surveys, trailing by just 4 percentage points in the Huffington Post average of public polls. She matched McCain’s fundraising in the spring quarter.
And hanging over everything is the fact that Trump practically kicked off his campaign last year by knifing McCain for criticizing him, telling an Iowa audience that McCain was “not a war hero” because he’d been captured in Vietnam — something voters here haven’t forgotten.
“It just makes it very awkward,” said Grant Woods, a former Arizona attorney general and a longtime friend of McCain’s, who said he spoke with McCain about the remarks the day Trump made them, one year ago this week.
“He’s 100 percent offended by it still,” Woods added.
Yet Kirkpatrick says he isn’t offended enough.
Speaking at a Phoenix meet-and-greet with the Hispanic community last weekend, Kirkpatrick questioned how McCain would defend Arizona if he wouldn’t defend himself. “I will tell you the one thing I hear most from people, wherever I am — and I don’t even know what party they are — is that they cannot believe that John McCain didn’t stand up to Donald Trump when Donald Trump insulted him,” Kirkpatrick said.
“That’s not the actions of a maverick or somebody who really stands for something,” she added.
Kirkpatrick is making a broader version of that message — McCain isn’t the maverick he used to be — the central theme of her campaign. “The fact is Washington changes people,” Kirkpatrick says in her first TV ad, which debuted this week, as McCain’s faces flashes onscreen.
GOP senators are trying to personalize their races this year before Democrats can nationalize them, and no senator in either party has a personal brand as celebrated as McCain’s. But while there’s discontent with McCain — he is almost universally known in the state but also has high disapproval ratings — the Arizona senator is not considered as vulnerable as half a dozen Republicans senators from bona fide, perennial swing states, including Kirk, Ayotte, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Rob Portman of Ohio and Marco Rubio of Florida.
Some Arizona Republicans, meanwhile, see McCain as trying to make the best of a tough situation.
Wearing a “Vets for McCain” button, Phil Goode crammed into McCain’s tiny campaign office in this northern Arizona town on Monday with other volunteers to hear McCain rally the troops. Trump’s attack on McCain “extremely, extremely bothers me,” said Goode, who chairs the Yavapai County GOP’s finance committee and who backed Ted Cruz in the primary.
Yet Goode now supports Trump in the name of party unity, and he doesn’t fault McCain for doing so, too.
“He’s going to support the nominee,” Goode said. “There’s absolutely no way he’d entertain the idea of supporting Hillary Clinton.”
Even Democrats admit that McCain remains the favorite. A Democrat hasn’t won a Senate seat in Arizona since 1988. But they see Trump — along with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is also deeply unpopular with Hispanics — as a way to accelerate the effects of the demographic change that is slowly making Arizona more competitive.
A 2014 report prepared by the polling firm Latino Decisions for America’s Voice, a pro-immigration reform group, estimated that there were approximately 600,000 unregistered but voting-eligible Latinos in Arizona. If as few as 100,000 of them had registered and voted in 2012, the report projected, they could potentially have tipped the result of Arizona’s last Senate race, which Republican Jeff Flake narrowly won over Democrat Richard Carmona.
That’s why Democrats from Kirkpatrick on down are working to tie Trump to McCain — a pro-immigration reform Republican who co-authored the 2013 “Gang of Eight” bill — at every chance they get.
Osiel Ibarra, a 20-year-old Arizona Democratic Party intern, says Trump often comes up when he’s out registering new voters. (He had the idea last week to start approaching people at Pokemon Go hotspots in Phoenix, which have proven to be magnets for young, unregistered voters.)
“‘Did you know Ann Kirkpatrick is running against John McCain, who recently endorsed Trump?’” Ibarra said he tells voters. “‘Oh, he endorsed Trump?’”
The state party has close to 100 paid staffers and hundreds more volunteers working to register voters across the state, said Chris Shallow, a deputy field director for the party, targeting “younger voters, Latino voters, especially.”
Behind closed doors, even McCain has admitted that Trump could upend his reelection campaign.
“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 at a fundraiser in April, 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.”
But inside the ballroom on Monday, McCain mentioned Trump’s name only once, as he spoke about the hunger for change voters in both parties seem to feel this year — and hinted at how traditional politicians are struggling to make sense of it.
“I ran into a guy the other day,” McCain said. “I said, ‘Who do you support?’ He said. ‘Trump.’ I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘He’s gonna make America great again.’ I said, ‘Who’s your second choice?’ He said, ‘Sanders, of course!’”
The crowd laughed.
“It is what it is,” McCain added softly.
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