John McCain
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

I don’t know if John McCain will survive politically, but I know that he’s already lost in an important sense. He’s come to the conclusion that he cannot oppose Donald Trump, a man who mocked him for getting captured by the Vietnamese, and have any hope of winning reelection. You can probably tell what McCain really thinks about Trump by listening to Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. The two neoconservative warhawks have nearly identical foreign policy views.

Yet, John McCain endorsed Donald Trump at the beginning of May, saying that it would be foolish to ignore the will of the voters. To get a full understanding of just how great of a personal defeat this was for McCain, we have to go back to January, when Sarah Palin endorsed Trump. When reporters asked McCain’s daughter Meghan what she thought of Palin’s endorsement, this is what she said:

The daughter of Sen. John McCain, who picked Palin to be his running mate in 2008, said she was specifically pained because of Trump’s past remarks about her father’s prisoner-of-war status in the Vietnam War.

“This has been a hard one for me. It really has been. My father’s campaign was all about character and integrity and I know that a lot of the beliefs that my father has espoused isn’t popular anymore. I understand that. I understand that anti-establishment candidates are taking over,” she said in an interview Wednesday on Fox Business Network’s “Varney & Co.”

Her father’s advisers and staff remain like “extended family,” McCain added. “It is hard for me to watch her endorse Donald Trump after what Donald Trump said about my father’s service. Just on a personal level, it’s hard for me to differentiate personal and politics in a situation like this.”

Meghan is outspoken, and she’s not as conservative as her father, but I think she spoke for the larger McCain camp when she portrayed Palin’s endorsement as a personal betrayal. Back in January, it would have been hard to imagine Sen. McCain endorsing Trump as well.

But, he’s not willing to lose his Senate seat over the insults that Trump cast his way, nor over their differences on foreign policy, free trade, immigration, or Trump’s temperament, ignorance, or bigotry.

Sometime back in April, McCain was caught on tape at a Republican fundraiser explaining how a Trump nomination would imperil his own reelection.

“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, 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.”

Statistics since gathered by the New York Times back up McCain’s political analysis:

An estimated 433,000 Hispanics are expected to vote in Arizona this November, an 8 percent increase from 2012…

…According to an analysis of voter and census data by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, Latinos are expected to account for 17 percent of Arizona’s registered electorate this year, with a voter turnout rate at close to 70 percent. Nearly 45 percent of Latino registered voters are Democrats, the report found…

…Hispanics in the Phoenix area will also be heavily motivated to vote in the sheriff’s election; Joe Arpaio, a Trump supporter who was recently found in contempt of court for willfully violating an order requiring his deputies to stop detaining Latinos, will be on the ballot, trying to keep his seat as Maricopa County sheriff.

Ironically, this means that John McCain has to tie himself closer to Trump rather than alienating his supporters.

It’s true that McCain seems to understand that he needs to do better than Trump with Latinos and young voters in order to win, but he can’t succeed if he loses the racist, nativist vote in the process. He almost definitely can outpoll Trump with Latinos, but McCain’s pitch to young voters needs some tweaking. Look at how he talks about them:

“I’ve been feeling it out there for some time,” Mr. McCain said. “In the southern part of the state here, they are not feeling the recovery at all. Then there is this whole issue with these young people and kids carrying around all this debt.”

“That’s the Bernie effect,” he said, referring to Senator Bernie Sanders’s youth appeal in the Democratic primaries.

He added: “The turmoil in this race is more than I’ve ever seen. Younger, newer voters are registering for only one reason, to vote against Trump. So my challenge is to convince that younger, newer voter that I am for them.”

McCain identifies the debt-load of young voters as a key reason why they like the message of Bernie Sanders, and he recognizes that a lot of young voters in Arizona (of all races) are registering specifically to vote against his party’s racist presidential nominee, but he won’t disown that racism and he doesn’t embrace any of Sanders’s agenda for helping young folks with their debt and their inability to make enough money to move out of their parents’ homes. He wants to convince young voters that he, unlike Trump, is on their side, but he’s off to the worst kind of start in making that case.

I don’t doubt that McCain is between a rock and a hard place. He doesn’t think Trump should be president but he won’t say that because he thinks it will split his base of support and cause him to lose. He can’t stay with Trump, though, and avoid losing the Latino and youth votes in a big way. And, in any case, where he differs most with Trump (on the war in Iraq and on free trade), McCain looks even worse to young voters.

Adding to his woes, his opponent Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, was raised on an Indian Reservation and will probably get a bigger share of the Native vote than is typical for a Democrat running against McCain.

The fascinating implication of all of this is that Trump will lose Arizona and lose it badly enough to possibly drag McCain down with him. After all, if Trump were to win Arizona, wouldn’t he be an asset to McCain rather than an albatross?

I’m not ready to make that prediction, but it’s hard to avoid noticing that McCain doesn’t think he can win with just Trump’s share of the vote.

I lost any respect I had for John McCain a long time ago but it’s sad to see him cling so bitterly to a seat that simply is not worth having at this cost. He should run a campaign he’ll be proud of, particularly because he might lose no matter what he does. Personally, I think he’s either safer than he thinks because Trump will carry the state, or he’s doomed unless he creates real distance between himself and Trump and gets significant crossover votes. Trying to have it both ways makes him look weak and lacking in all principles, and that’s not going to appeal to any of the factions in Arizona.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at