Has The GOP’s Maverick Lost His Way? John McCain’s Struggle To Survive 2016

It’s a confounding year for the Republican Party, but for former GOP standard bearer Sen. John McCain (R- AZ), 2016 is an alternative universe.

The Republican Party McCain once knew has shifted dramatically under his feet and the anti-incumbent wave sweeping the country this cycle could be strong enough to overtake the self-proclaimed maverick.

“I get a sense that McCain is running as hard in 2016 as he did in 1986 when he first ran for the U.S. Senate,” says Stan Barnes, an Arizona Republican consultant and former state lawmaker. “He has never been in the position of running for re-election in a presidential year with such an undefinable fluid group of variables floating around in the political atmosphere. It could make a guy wonder what the right move is.”

The Center for Politics at the University of Virginia moved McCain’s race from likely Republican to leans Republican last year, an early signal of how much closer his race could be.

An immigration reformer and Washington dealmaker, McCain is caught between his own moderate reputation and the anti-immigrant fervency and establishment fatigue back home. Somehow, McCain will have to do the impossible if he hopes to survive in 2016: work to hold onto Trump’s base all the while not offending Latino and independent supporters he’ll need as he faces his most formidable challenger yet.

U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ) is a political comeback story.

Kirkpatrick, 66, was first elected to represent Arizona’s First Congressional District in 2008, but lost in the Tea Party wave of 2010. In 2012 – with a slightly redrawn district–she took back her seat. And, in 2014–as Democrats were losing around the country–Kirkpatrick not only survived, but won her district with even more votes than the cycle before.

“If you asked me to bet my mortgage, I would bet on McCain,” says Chris Herstam, a newly-minted Democrat who switched his party affiliation last year, but served as a Republican state lawmaker and GOP consultant for decades. “I think he has fabulous name ID and a 30-year record, but I think it is a legitimate horse race.”

An April Rocky Mountain Survey showed McCain and Kirkpatrick in a dead heat — 42 percent apiece — with Kirkpatrick making gains in what has long been considered Republican territory: rural counties in Arizona. But underscoring just how difficult of a balancing act McCain has in front of him is the fact that McCain’s salvation thus far is that he has 50 percent of the Hispanic vote while Kirkpatrick has just 37 percent. It illuminates just how tricky it could be in the general election if Trump is at the top of McCain’s ticket, with all his talk of building a big old beautiful border wall.

Kirkpatrick’s campaign manager Max Croes says part of the strategy is to try and show that McCain is not the same maverick he once was. Kirkpatrick has already released an ad tying McCain to Trump.

“We were the first ones in the country to do something like that. Our plan is to show that John McCain, after spending 33 years in Washington, has changed,” Croes says.

McCain has $5.5 million in the bank compared to Kirkpatrick’s $1.3 million, but unlike McCain, who could see a drag from the top of his ticket, Kirkpatrick could benefit from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton being on the top of hers. Polls show in a one-on-one race, Clinton beats Trump 42 percent to 35 percent in Arizona, according to another Rocky Mountain Survey. If the Clinton campaign decides to make a serious play the grassroots infrastructure it builds could help Kirkpatrick turn out Democratic voters.

McCain’s team maintains that their candidate is independent — and independent enough to defy a wave election.

“John McCain has always taken every election seriously and will campaign hard for each vote,” McCain’s campaign spokeswoman Lorna Romero said in an emailed statement.

But Kirkpatrick is not McCain’s only obstacle.

From his right, the five-term incumbent faces a primary challenge from little known Scottsdale Tea Party member and printer Alex Meluskey as well as former state Sen. Kelli Ward, a doctor and one-time Cliven Bundy sympathizer who was among the dozens of lawmakers who filed suit against Arizona’s Republican Gov. Jan Brewer when she expanded Medicare in the state in 2013.

So far neither looks to be gaining traction. FEC reports show them both burning through campaign cash with just $210,792 and $163,764 cash on hand respectively. Yet, both are still a thorn in McCain’s side, a constraint to consider when Arizona’s senior senator is tempted to unleash the straight talk express against right-wing forces he once openly detested.

“The John McCain I know is quick with an opinion and anxious to get into the fray and the John McCain this year is doing his best to not find himself wrestling with any particular constituency because it is so complicated to figure out where the majority is in Arizona this year,” Barnes says.

On Capitol Hill, McCain has shown almost uncharacteristic restraint as reporters have peppered him with endless questions about the day-to-day roller coaster of the presidential race. In the end of February, McCain seemed tired of being asked what had happened to the party he once led. How did it happen that he was staring down two options: a billionaire who could alienate Latino voters from the party for decades to come and a junior senator McCain once called a “wacko bird.”

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” McCain said.

“Are you stumped,” he was asked.

“I’m stumped,” he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lauren Fox is a reporter at Talking Points Memo.
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