By Jim Ellis
Sept. 2, 2016 — It is clear that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is in a more precarious political position the day after his primary than the day before. On Tuesday, the veteran Arizona senator recorded only a 52-39 percent victory over his top challenger, former state Sen. Kelli Ward. Two other Republican candidates, Alex Meluskey and Clair Van Steenwyk, received a combined 9.1 percent of the GOP primary vote: 5.5 percent for Meluskey and the remainder for Van Steenwyk.
But Tuesday’s underlying numbers illuminate what is likely a greater McCain vulnerability for the fall campaign against 1st District Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Flagstaff): a weak Republican base.
Looking at the state’s 15 counties, Ward actually defeated McCain in three of them, Cochise, Navajo, and Mohave. Additionally, the senator only carried Apache County by 75 votes. Together, this suggests McCain is doing poorly on the Indian reservations, which is not unusual since the region is a Democratic stronghold, but these votes came from within his own party.
Making an even more compelling case that Democrats can seriously challenge McCain is the vote status when removing massive Maricopa County, 61 percent of the state’s population, from the candidates’ primary vote totals. In the areas outside of the Phoenix metropolitan area, Ward fought to within just 4,561 votes of the senator, 94,822 to 90,261 (51-49 percent). His Maricopa County margin was a much stronger 61-39 percent when isolating just the McCain and Ward votes within Arizona’s dominant population sector.
Ward spent about $1.5 million on her effort, with McCain heavily countering to the tune of more than $6 million for the election cycle. The senator and his Super PAC allies actually spent a sizable amount not only to shore up McCain’s positive ID, but also to attack Ward. During her time in the state legislature she was known for taking extreme conservative positions, which made her a less than ideal candidate against the 30-year senatorial veteran. The media attack ads certainly exploited those positions.
Even when creating a negative image of Ward, McCain could do no better than a 13-point victory while seeing 48 percent of participating Republicans vote for an opposition candidate. Six years ago, he garnered 56 percent of the primary vote, and even that number revealed inherent political weakness within what should be a significant political base. It was expected that the senator would exceed his previous intra-party vote total this past Tuesday, but instead McCain under-performed to an even greater degree.
Certainly, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is moving the Arizona race up on their offensive target list after Sen. McCain’s lackluster Tuesday night performance. While challenges to Sens. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Richard Burr (R-NC) seem to be attracting more of the under-the-radar political buzz, McCain’s primary performance will now direct such attention toward Arizona at least in the short term.
Tuesday’s statewide voter turnout reached 24 percent of the registered voters. With little action on the Democratic side – Rep. Kirkpatrick was unopposed for the Senate nomination, for example — a full 41 percent of registered Republicans participated in the primary election.
Sen. McCain is still favored for re-election, but the latest developments foretell a much more precarious path to victory.