Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and John McCain of Arizona turned toward the general election Wednesday with GOP control of the Senate at risk, each facing lesser-known Democratic House members who’ve sought to link them to Donald Trump.
Rubio and McCain have two tough months of campaigning ahead, but on Tuesday they easily dispatched their Republican primary opponents, outcomes that underscored the party establishment’s dominance of House and Senate primaries this year despite the nation’s turbulent anti-establishment mood and Trump’s outsider candidacy.
Not a single senator of either party has lost a primary this year, and in House races only five incumbents have lost, in several cases because they were under indictment or their districts were redrawn.
Rubio and McCain are supporting Trump for president, albeit with obvious reluctance after they were the targets of his insults and Rubio ran against Trump for the White House. Unlike other incumbents, Rubio and McCain are extremely well-known with their own brands distinct from Trump’s, but the mogul’s impact on their candidacies remains unpredictable in states with large numbers of Hispanics, many of whom Trump has alienated with his insulting comments about Mexicans and his hard line on immigration.
Trump was speaking about immigration late Wednesday night in Phoenix after a visit to Mexico, but McCain, who avoids talking about Trump or appearing with him, did not plan to attend. Instead he was “spending a much-deserved day off with his wife, Cindy, at their home in Sedona,” his campaign said.
McCain will face Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, his most formidable Democratic opponent in years, while Rubio faces Rep. Patrick Murphy, a former Republican who won his primary against unpredictable liberal firebrand Rep. Alan Grayson.
Tuesday’s primary also saw Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the controversial former head of the Democratic National Committee, easily beat challenger Tim Canova, who was supported by Sen. Bernie Sanders. Twelve-term Democratic Rep. Corrine Brown, one of the first black lawmakers elected to Congress from Florida since Reconstruction, lost her primary in a redrawn district and under indictment over allegedly using a charity as a slush fund.
In a video released Wednesday, McCain hinted at what some Republicans anticipate will become a common down-ballot strategy if Trump continues to struggle in the polls: asking voters to send Republicans to Congress as a check against a President Hillary Clinton.
“My opponent, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, is a good person. But if Hillary Clinton is elected president, Arizona will need a senator who will act as a check — not a rubber stamp,” McCain said, ticking off issues including taxes, the military, Supreme Court justices and President Barack Obama’s health care law.
In comments to supporters in Florida, Rubio made a similar argument not only about Clinton but Trump too, saying that he hoped to participate in “a Senate that will act as a check and balance on the excesses of the executive branch when it goes too far, no matter who wins this election.”
McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, won the Arizona primary by nearly 14 percentage points over former state Sen. Kelli Ward, a tea party activist who had tried to make an issue of the 80-year-old McCain’s age, suggesting he was unfit to serve. McCain, in turn, sought to avoid engaging with Ward even while spending money to link her to conspiracy theories about aircraft spraying Americans with chemicals, dubbing her Chemtrail Kelli.
Rubio had announced his intention to retire from the Senate until GOP leaders, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, lured him into running for re-election in June. His announcement nearly cleared a crowded field, leaving wealthy developer Carlos Beruff as his only opponent. Rubio overwhelmed Beruff on Tuesday, winning by 53 percentage points and leaving Beruff to complain bitterly about Rubio’s about-face on retiring: “I guess I was silly to believe the words of a Washington politician.”
Republican officials and their allies celebrated the primary wins following victories earlier in the election cycle in Alabama, Indiana and other states. It’s a change from past elections, most notably in 2010 and 2012, when flawed GOP candidates won primaries in states like Missouri and Delaware, only to cost the party in November.
“Tuesday’s results are further proof that well-run campaigns can win elections despite environmental headwinds,” said John Ashbrook, a former McConnell aide and GOP strategist whose firm, Cavalry LLC, has worked for several winning GOP Senate primary campaigns this season.
Republicans have a 54-46 seat majority in the Senate. Democrats are competing fiercely in several states including Illinois, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania as they aim to take back Senate control.