September 19th, 2020


Razing Arizona: Is John McCain In Trouble Back In His Home State?

Bill Whalen

By Bill Whalen

Published May 24, 2016

Choosing which Senate Republican incumbents are in trouble in this election is an exercise in the obvious.

It begins by identifying which current Senate members are running in states that twice voted for Barack Obama in a presidential contest.

Then add: which current senators who were non-incumbents six years ago rode to victory in 2010 courtesy of the first of two anti-Obama midterm elections.

Using those criteria, these GOP senators may be in for a rough ride this fall: New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, Illinois’ Mark Kirk, Ohio’s Rob Portman and Pennsylvania’s Pay Toomey.

You can add Florida Sen. Marco Rubio to this list should he change his mind, as he’s currently hinting that he might, and seek a second term.

There’s one other name to add to this discussion – a Republican senator who wasn’t a newcomer in 2010, nor does he hail from a state that voted twice for Obama (even once, for that matter).

And that would be Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Here are three reasons to keep an eye on McCain’s quest for what would be a sixth consecutive term in the Senate.

He’s off his game. Last week, McCain said Obama was “directly responsible” for the Orlando terror massacre. Not longer afterward, he said he “misspoke”.

Was it just a slip? Perhaps. Or maybe he’s feeling pressure.

McCain likely will survive a primary challenge later this summer (it’d be an enormous upset if he lost to State Sen. Kelli Ward). However, there’s a tricky juggling act up through Election Day: how to balance an electorate that could be up to 30% Latino and not fond of the Republican presidential nominee with a cadre of Donald Trump supporters who want to hear tough talk on terrorism and border security.

Further complicating matters: McCain having feuded with Trump, public lamenting that he might be a top-of-the-ticket albatross, yet saying he’ll honor the voters’ will.

Maybe McCain was having an off day when he pinned the Orlando blame on Obama.

Or perhaps it reflects a candidate who knows he’s in a difficult re-elect fight – a position, ironically, the good people of Arizona put him in when they handed Trump a big primary victory back in late March.

He could be the odd man out. 2016 shapes up as a rough year for Senate Republicans – 24 GOP seats to defend, versus only 10 for the Democrats (the shoe’s on the other foot in 2018, when Democrats will have at least 23 seats to defend, versus only 8 Republican holds).

As mentioned earlier, what stands out for this year’s five most vulnerable Senate Republicans is their lack of tenure – all first-termers.

In that regard, what happened in the Senate in 2014.

Democrats lost nine seats two years ago, with five of those victims being incumbent senators. Three of the five three were first-termers (Alaska’s Mark Begitch, North Carolina’s Kay Hagan and Colorado’s Mark Udall). The other two – Arkansas’ Mark Pryor and Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu – had two and three terms, respectively.

The point: big Senate sweeps occur for two reasons: first-term senators finding themselves on the wrong end of the political earth moving; non-purple states getting caught in a rising tide.

Should Trump melt down come November, McCain could be caught in such a state.

His time’s up. There’s one other reason for a veteran senator getting tossed: like a dairy product, they can reach a political expiration date.

Consider the political upheaval that was 1980 – Ronald Reagan winning 44 states and the presidency; Senate Republicans picking up 12 seats and control of the chamber for the first time in over a quarter of a century in what, at the time, was the most dramatic Senate shift since the second of the two Eisenhower midterm votes.

Nine Senate Democrats bit the dust in November 1980. Three were first-termers. Three others had three terms in the Senate (one of them being George McGovern).

The other three victims in the Reagan landslide: a pair of fourth-term senators – Idaho’s Frank Church and Georgia’s Herman Talmedge – plus Washington Sen. Warren Magnuson, who’d held his seat since mid-December of 1944 – specifically, the day before the opening salvos in the Battle of the Bulge.

Approaching his 30th year, McCain doesn’t even make the top 25 of longest-serving members of that chamber (three current members are on that list).

However, as you’ll see on this list of senators ranked by longevity, he’s one of only two incumbents (Iowa’s Charles Grassley being the other) closing in on four terms or more in the Senate who represent a presidential battleground state – the rest are safely tucked red and blue walls.

That makes John McCain more vulnerable than one might expect of a senator who’s been in the chamber for nearly three decades, has been a voice in presidential politics for the better part of two decades now, and whose state is hardly synonymous with Democratic uprisings.

Just one more reason why 2016 stacks up as an odd election year.

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Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he studies and writes on current events and political trends. In citing Whalen as one of its "top-ten" political reporters, The 1992 Media Guide said of his work: "The New York Times could trade six of its political writers for Whalen and still get a bargain." During those years, Whalen also appeared frequently on C-SPAN, National Public Radio, and CNBC.