McCain, Rubio Walk Trump Tightrope in Primaries

McCain, Rubio Walk Trump Tightrope in Primaries
Tom Tingle/The Arizona Republic via AP, File
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GOP Sens. Marco Rubio and John McCain are expected to survive their primaries on Tuesday as they face challengers who have tried to ride the Donald Trump wave to major electoral upsets.

The two men are among the biggest names in Republican politics – Rubio had long been seen as a rising star and future party leader until his presidential bid flopped earlier this year, and McCain, a two-time presidential candidate, was the GOP nominee eight years ago. They’re both facing little-known opponents who have echoed Trump’s bombastic and controversial style and tried to latch onto the businessman’s surprising success among Republican primary voters.

Carlos Beruff, Rubio’s challenger in Florida, is the remaining Republican from what was a crowded field that mostly cleared when Rubio announced he would seek re-election in June. The self-funding businessman has poured more than $8 million into his campaign, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, and has made an explicit pitch for Trump voters, even releasing ads criticizing Rubio for not supporting some of Trump’s policies. But according to polls, his message has failed to catch fire against Rubio’s sky-high name recognition in the state.

And while the incumbent has kept his distance from the party’s standard-bearer and stood by the attacks he made during the presidential primary, including when he said the business mogul was unfit to carry the nuclear codes, Trump has offered support for Rubio’s bid. The GOP nominee even openly encouraged Rubio to change his mind and run for re-election, undercutting the push Beruff has made for support from Trump voters who helped him beat Rubio in the state’s March primary.  

In Arizona, McCain is no stranger to difficult primary challenges, having spent more than $20 million in 2010 to defeat a former congressman running against him from the right. This year, he faces a similar challenge from former state legislator Kelli Ward, an avowed conservative who has held nothing back in attacking McCain while courting support from Trump backers.

Last week, she went after McCain’s age – he turned 80 on Monday – suggesting multiple times that he might not be healthy enough to live through another six-year term in the Senate, an attack that drew widespread condemnation but garnered a great deal of attention for the mostly unknown challenger.

If McCain wins his primary, he will face two-term Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, whom he leads by eight percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average. Democrats have tried to make Arizona a battleground race for control of the Senate, one which they could potentially flip if Hillary Clinton pulls off a surprise win against Trump in the traditionally red state. Kirkpatrick represents a Republican-leaning district and has a history of winning tough races, but recent polls have shown Trump still ahead in the Grand Canyon State, which would make defeating McCain tougher.

Trump’s support among the GOP primary voters has led to an awkward high-wire approach for McCain, who has criticized the presidential nominee multiple times for his more controversial statements – most notably when Trump attacked the parents of a U.S. soldier who died in Iraq – but has stood by his endorsement of the business mogul. The five-term senator told The Washington Post last week that he wouldn’t back off his endorsement of Trump if he wins the primary, but his vote margin Tuesday could be an indicator of how strong his support is among the GOP faithful in Arizona, and how much work he will have to do to court Trump voters who decided to back Ward.

If Rubio also wins his race Tuesday, he’ll face off against the winner of one of the most controversial and negative primary battles this year: the race between Democratic Reps. Patrick Murphy and Alan Grayson. Murphy, a two-term congressman who is only 33, has the support of the entire Democratic establishment, including President Obama and Vice President Biden, but has faced questions about embellishing his background. Grayson, a three-term progressive firebrand, has faced accusations of domestic abuse and questions about running a hedge fund as a sitting member of Congress. The race has drawn significant intra-party fire, including when Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who endorsed Murphy, told Grayson in a meeting attended by other lawmakers earlier this year that he wanted him to lose.

Rubio has held a steady lead against both potential Democratic challengers in recent polls, showing that the winner on the Democratic side will have a great deal of ground to make up in a shortened general election period.

In Florida, however, the Senate primary is not the only intriguing race Tuesday. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the former chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee who stepped down last month amid a controversial release of hacked emails, is running against Tim Canova, a law professor with no political history but the backing of Sen. Bernie Sanders and many of his progressive supporters. Wasserman Schultz is expected to win the primary by a comfortable margin, and the winner will not face a tough general election matchup in this overwhelmingly Democratic district. But a narrow victory or surprise upset would be a clear sign that the frustration over the DNC’s role in the presidential primary – and progressive dissatisfaction with the party establishment generally – have not ebbed since the primary.

Tuesday elections, the last significant down-ballot primary races this year, will help set the stage for a 10-week sprint to Election Day where Florida – and to a lesser degree Arizona – could be critical to determining which party controls the Senate next year.

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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