By Jim Ellis
May 9, 2016 — Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) said late last week that he is “worried that [Donald] Trump as the GOP nominee puts his own seat in play”. Later in the day McCain partially walked back his comments by saying he would vote for Trump.
McCain’s observation about his own re-election status is both right and wrong. He’s correct in detecting that his seat is competitive this year, and a sleeper race for the Democrats, but erroneous in attributing the reason to Donald Trump’s impending national presidential candidacy as the Republican nominee.
The Arizona Senate race may well be in play, but it has been trending that way for some time and before Trump became a serious fixture in the presidential campaign. In surveys dating back to mid-January, McCain was seen as dropping into a virtual tie with Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ-1), his presumptive general election opponent.
The Behavioral Research Center tested the Grand Canyon State electorate in January and again in April. In between, Arizona-based Merrill Polling also fielded a survey (March 7-11). Two of the three polls found McCain leading Kirkpatrick by just one point. The other found the pair tied.
If anything, Trump’s presence on the ballot may actually help McCain in the general election. The new presumptive presidential nominee won the Arizona winner-take-all primary with 46 percent of the vote, and the total GOP turnout was 15.3 percent higher than when the home state senator was running for the Republican nomination in 2008. When Mitt Romney was on the Arizona primary ballot here four years ago, the statewide turnout was 36 percent lower than the Trump-Cruz, et al 2016 participation factor.
Additionally, Trump’s key issue of immigration has proven to strike a chord with Arizona voters. Combining these factors with the state’s vote history suggest that Trump will carry Arizona, just like every other Republican nominee since 1948, with the exception of Bob Dole in 1996.
Understanding that all Hillary Clinton needs to do to win the presidency is carry 80 percent of the states that President Obama carried twice, and overlaying the aforementioned political points, it is unlikely that the 2016 Clinton presidential effort will even seriously target Arizona.
Therefore, for McCain to suggest that Donald Trump as the Republican presidential nominee, who will likely carry Arizona irrespective as to how he might fare nationally, somehow costs him the Senate seat he has held since 1986 is simply without merit.
Though this Senate race has yet to generate much interest nationally, it has the underpinnings of a possible upset. Rep. Kirkpatrick matches up well with McCain. Though she has a liberal voting record, she is emphasizing rural Arizona issues that moderate her in a statewide context. Taking the tone of thanking McCain for his long service to Arizona and country but saying it’s time to move forward in a different direction appears to be the right tone and context.
Seeing that she has already raised well over $3 million with more than $1.3 million in the bank also suggests that Kirkpatrick will be able to attract the necessary resources to make her challenge of McCain a top tier national campaign. It likely helps her to keep the race lower key, however, and not alert national McCain allies until it is too late for them to adequately respond.
The type of campaign Kirkpatrick and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee strategists are building is serious, and McCain’s potential vulnerability has absolutely nothing to do with Donald Trump becoming the Republican presidential nominee and everything to do with his own local and regional situation.