What took you so long?
It’s a question that Ann Kirkpatrick has asked repeatedly in recent days about U.S. Sen. John McCain and his decision to withdraw his support from Donald Trump.
That’s also a question that some Democrats are asking of Kirkpatrick’s belated efforts to tie McCain to his Republican Party’s caustic presidential nominee.
As early ballots hit Arizona voters’ mailboxes, Kirkpatrick finds herself in an unenviable position. The Democratic congresswoman is taking on a political institution in McCain, a five-term senator and former GOP presidential nominee. She’s doing it in a traditionally red state that rarely elects Democrats to statewide offices and hasn’t sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1988. And she now must overcome those hurdles after one of her best lines of attack against McCain suddenly lost a lot of its luster.
Kirkpatrick over the past couple of weeks has ratcheted up the pressure on McCain over his tepid but long-running support of Trump’s candidacy.
On October 3, she started running her first ad criticizing McCain over his backing of the business mogul. Two days after McCain fully broke with the nominee, Kirkpatrick began running a new television ad claiming that he “paved the way” for Trump. Kirkpatrick devoted a good chunk of their first and only debate on October 10 to McCain’s past support for the nominee.
At a press conference with several Democratic women lawmakers on October 4, Kirkpatrick insisted that she hadn’t waited too long to make Trump an issue in the U.S. Senate race.
But things took an abrupt turn on October 7, two days before the debate, when The Washington Post dropped a bombshell on the Trump campaign. The newspaper revealed a 2005 video in which Trump brags about being able to kiss women and grope their genitals without consent. Trump boasts of being able to commit sexual assault because he’s a “star” was the last straw for many in the GOP, including McCain, who was part of a flood of prominent Republicans who withdrew their support.
Several days before The Washington Post story, Kirkpatrick insisted that she hadn’t waited too long to go after McCain in television ads highlighting his support for Trump, noting that she’d released online videos and other messaging on the issue. Kirkpatrick’s campaign describes McCain’s recent change of heart on Trump as nothing more than a “crass political decision” and insists that McCain’s un-endorsement won’t diminish the strength of her attacks.
“McCain can try to walk away at this point, but the bottom line is he stood by Trump while he said all these things,” said D.B. Mitchell, Kirkpatrick’s campaign spokesman. “So no, I don’t think it’s lost any of its effectiveness.”
Trump is widely regarded as the most unpopular major-party nominee in American history. But it’s McCain who has put more effort into tying his opponent to her party’s standard-bearer. Hillary Clinton, viewed historically as second only to Trump in unpopularity, is Kirkpatrick’s candidate. And McCain has spared no expense to remind voters of that, focusing on Kirkpatrick’s support for Clinton through months’ worth of television ads.
In their debate, McCain parried Kirkpatrick’s Trump-related criticism by reiterating that he’d already renounced the business mogul.
“It’s not pleasant for me to renounce the nominee of my party,” McCain said. “He won the nomination fair and square. But I have daughters. I have friends. I have so many wonderful people on my staff. They cannot be degraded and demeaned in that fashion. So I believe I had to withdraw my support, just as I cannot support Hillary Clinton.”
But Kirkpatrick, he noted repeatedly, has stood by Clinton throughout accusations about her private email server and her response to the murder of four diplomatic personnel in Benghazi, Libya, by Islamic terrorists in 2012.
Not everyone believes the presidential race will be much of a factor in the U.S. Senate contest. Barrett Marson, a Republican public relations consultant, said he isn’t convinced that voters will much care whether either candidate supported their unpopular presidential nominee. And though Arizona is starting to look like a battleground state, Marson questioned whether backing Trump will actually hurt McCain.
But if Kirkpatrick wanted to hit McCain for backing Trump, he said, she should’ve done it earlier.
“(Kirkpatrick) should have been attacking John McCain for his support of Trump, which they did in the last week or so. But now it’s too late because he doesn’t support Trump anymore,” Marson said.
Holding out hope
On paper, Kirkpatrick is a strong candidate running a strong campaign. She’s raised about $8 million, making her the most prolific Democratic fundraiser in Arizona history, not counting campaigns that have relied on self-funding. And Democrats are enthusiastic about the ground game that she and Democratic organizations have put together in Arizona.
Some Democrats are still holding out hope. They acknowledge that Kirkpatrick has an uphill climb, and always has. But the race is still winnable for the congresswoman, they say. And some, such as Democratic strategist Rodd McLeod, say McCain can’t escape his longtime support for Trump.
“I’ve seen polling where people who have endorsed Donald Trump, whether they jettisoned him or not, are really paying the price,” said McLeod, who served as Clinton’s Arizona director during the Democratic primary. “You get to kind of focus public attention on somebody like John McCain, who’s trying to save his political career by saying he can’t vote for Trump after 60 times saying he would. And it hurts. It hurts him with voters who don’t like Trump. It hurts him with voters who do like Trump.”
Other Democrats are pessimistic, or have even written off Kirkpatrick’s chances entirely. Few want to publicly criticize their party’s nominee, but privately many say Kirkpatrick’s odds are low and that she’s had plenty of missteps and missed opportunities.
Recent polling seems a bad omen for Kirkpatrick. Though some polls have shown a tight race, multiple others put McCain up by double-digits. Real Clear Politics’ polling average puts the incumbent senator up by 16 percentage points. Polling guru Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight pegs McCain’s chances of being re-elected at slightly more than 95 percent, and estimates that he currently has nearly 55 percent of the vote.
Trump’s unpredictable effect
To some, the lack of outside help for Kirkpatrick is telling. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee as yet hasn’t lifted a finger to help her as early ballots went out in the mail, nor had anyone else stepped up to offer any help, outside of the Virginia-based group Feminist Majority, which has spent about $11,000, primarily on get-out-the-vote efforts.
There has been a great deal of head-scratching on both sides of the aisle about Kirkpatrick’s messaging and ads. Her commercials prominently play up the imagery of her famous cowboy boots, as do her signs. It’s a strategy that’s played well in her rural 1st Congressional District, where she surprised many by winning tough races in 2012 and 2014. But it’s not a good fit for a statewide electorate in which the bulk of the votes come from urban Maricopa and Pima counties, critics say.
If Kirkpatrick still has a shot, some Democrats say it lies with Trump and his unpredictable effect on voter turnout.
Catherine Alonzo, a Democratic campaign consultant, said strong Democratic field campaign efforts combined with Trump’s unknown impact on voter turnout could boost Kirkpatrick. She also predicted that McCain could be hurt by down-ballot fallout from Trump’s 2005 sexual comments.
“We don’t know as well as we usually would what turnout’s going to look like because we have no idea how many people are going to be turned off by the negativity of the presidential. Also Hispanic voters, female voters, those that tend to be in minority groups, they may be motivated to turn out in a way they never have before,” Alonzo said.
The possibility remains as well that Trump’s devoted supporters could turn on Republicans who turned their backs on the nominee, as McCain has. On October 11, Trump chastised McCain on Twitter, writing, “The very foul mouthed Sen. John McCain begged for my support during his primary (I gave, he won), then dropped me over locker room remarks!”
Stan Barnes, a lobbyist and former Republican lawmaker, said Kirkpatrick still has a chance simply because 2016 is the “craziest year.” Trump’s many foibles could aid Clinton in Arizona, which hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since her husband in 1996. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into success for Kirkpatrick, he said. And Kirkpatrick must also contend with her support for an unpopular Clinton and her 2010 vote for Obamacare, both of which have been central themes of McCain’s campaign against her for months.
“I think Clinton’s chances are better in Arizona than Kirkpatrick’s are, because John McCain stands on his own 30-plus year connection to our state, and that supersedes whatever lift Ann Kirkpatrick would receive if Hillary were to actually win Arizona,” Barnes said.
Gibson McKay, a GOP consultant and lobbyist, said McCain can win Arizona, even if Trump doesn’t.
“Whether the top of the ticket goes one way or the other, McCain still has favorite son status,” he said.
Barnes said many voters who are opposed to Trump are likely to forgive McCain for his previous support. But, he suggested that McCain is more likely to lose votes from irate Trump supporters than to gain them for renouncing Trump.
However, Democratic operative Andy Barr said a lot can change as the campaigns enter their final weeks. Kirkpatrick has a tough road ahead of her, he said, but the race isn’t over.
“Given how negative and crazy the last three weeks of the presidential campaign are shaping up to be, I have a hard time believing that that’s going to do anything to help McCain and it will create new opportunities for Kirkpatrick,” Barr said. “If Trump craters in Arizona, I have a hard time believing McCain won’t as well.”