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His name may not be on the ballots in Florida and Arizona today, but Donald Trump’s shadow still looms over two Republican Senators facing primary challenges.
Both Senators John McCain and Marco Rubio have said they will vote for Trump for President, despite criticizing some of his past comments. And, both have said they will still vote for Trump for President despite his personal — and oftentimes despicable — attacks on them.
Over a year ago, Trump insulted McCain’s military service during the Vietnam War, saying McCain was “not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
“Mr. McCain, a naval aviator, was shot down during the Vietnam War and held prisoner for more than five years in Hanoi, refusing early release even after being repeatedly beaten,” notes the New York Times.
While Republican leaders like Senator Lindsey Graham immediately condemned the remarks, McCain did not say he would refuse to support Trump were he to eventually become the Republican nominee.
Over a year later, Trump again set his sights on members of the US military, this time attacking the Gold Star parents of Captain Humayun Khan — killed in action in Iraq in 2004 — after they spoke at the Democratic National Convention this summer.
In the ensuing days, nearly three dozen prominent Republican leaders — including Maine Senator Susan Collins — publicly announced they could not support Trump for President, with some expressing support for Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
McCain, however, was not among them.
In Florida, Trump’s attacks on Rubio instead wandered into playground territory, with Trump repeatedly mocking him as “Little Marco” during the Republican Presidential primary. Rubio slammed him a “con man” and “wholly unprepared to be President of the United States.” Yet like McCain, Rubio is still supporting him for President.
Over at the National Journal, Josh Kraushaar take a deeper look at why McCain and Rubio both refuse to cut ties with Trump in favor of their own political gain:
Tuesday’s primaries in Florida and Arizona will offer clarity on how large Trump’s base really is, and whether Sens. Marco Rubio and John McCain have been strategically smart in maintaining their support for Trump even as the GOP’s presidential nominee continues to crater in polls. Rubio and McCain are expected to win, even though they’re facing primary challengers who closely align themselves with Trump and are accusing their opponents of being part of the dreaded establishment. Both senators are also facing very competitive general-election campaigns, and their loyalty to Trump could cost them crucial support from Hispanics and independent voters.
Rubio and McCain have twisted themselves into pretzels to protect against a Trump-fueled backlash. After being his leading critic during the presidential primaries, Rubio has constantly recalibrated his rhetoric on Trump as a Senate candidate, trying to win over his former opponent’s myriad supporters in Florida while not alienating his detractors. In turn, Trump offered public encouragement on Twitter for Rubio to run for reelection. After deciding to run for a second term, Rubio said he would be honored to help Trump, offered to speak at the convention before backtracking, later taped a video merely congratulating the GOP ticket, and has maintained lukewarm support for Trump with the argument that he’s better than Hillary Clinton.
Rubio has legitimate reasons to be concerned about the scope of Trump’s support. Trump crushed him in his home state by 19 points, losing only one county (Miami-Dade) in the entire state. Rubio’s wealthy primary opponent, developer Carlos Beruff, has been portraying himself as a Trump clone. Beruff has spent about $3 million of his own money attacking Rubio as an establishment Republican who lost touch with the state. One of his ads tries to define the Senate primary as a proxy for the presidential primaries. “We need a senator from Florida who supports Donald Trump and wants to secure our borders. … Marco Rubio is too timid to try to help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton. Carlos Beruff will proudly stand up for Donald Trump,” the ad says.
But if there really were a huge, Trump-at-all-costs constituency, Beruff should be getting some more traction. Republican strategists involved in the race expect Rubio to win the primary comfortably, with around 65 percent of the GOP vote. If that’s the case, was it worth pandering to Trump’s supporters at the expense of possible swing voters in November?
“This is more out of concern in a primary, where base voters aren’t fond of Trump but are so unhappy with the prospect of a Clinton presidency that they’d take it personally if a Republican incumbent repudiated Trump,” said one GOP pollster involved in battleground Senate races. (Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, for instance, saw his approval rating with Republicans nosedive after publicly declining to endorse Trump at the GOP convention.)
McCain, who has long antagonized the conservative base in Arizona, has an even more difficult needle to thread. His campaign has spent inordinate time marginalizing his arch-conservative GOP opponent, former state Sen. Kelli Ward, and is expected to win his primary comfortably. But even his allies don’t expect him to win much more than 50 percent of the vote in a three-person primary. He’s been compelled to offer a de facto endorsement of Trump despite the hostility Trump has directed his way.
Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, McCain’s Democratic opponent, has been using ads to exploit McCain’s awkward relationship with Trump. She’s betting that by pandering to Trump supporters, McCain is hurting his standing with Hispanics and independents, two constituencies with which he runs well ahead of the average Republican. The fact that Clinton is running competitively with Trump in Arizona only underscores McCain’s general-election risk in pandering to Trump and his base.