Senator John McCain is, as I type this, awaiting the results of today's Arizona primary election. The outcome will likely be that he will once again obtain the Republican Party's nomination for his Senate seat. But the results will probably be a lot closer than any of McCain's other primary races, because he is facing a Tea Party (or perhaps "Trumpesque") challenger who actually has a chance to unseat McCain. Discontent with McCain (and Establishment Republicans in general) from the Republican base voters is palpable -- so much so that McCain has been forced to support Donald Trump's campaign, even after Trump personally insulted him (and all American prisoners of war, for good measure) in a very public manner. But even if McCain, as expected, wins tonight, he'll then go on to face a Democratic challenger in what could also be a very tight race for him.
McCain has come a long way from his original "maverick" political persona, it's pretty easy to see. He built his political reputation around being his own man and taking on his own political party when he disagreed with them. This worked quite well for McCain, at least up until his defeat to George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential primaries. After that point, McCain got noticeably less mavericky and embraced his own party for better or worse, as best evidenced by McCain campaigning for Bush's re-election (in an effort to remain in good enough graces with Republicans to make his own second bid for the presidency in 2008). This also worked out well for McCain, at least until he made his last big mavericky move -- his selection of Sarah Palin for running mate, rather than any of the Establishment Republican choices others were pushing upon him.
Since his rather resounding defeat by Barack Obama, McCain has shown occasional bursts of maverick behavior, but the label really has to be considered retired in the 2016 campaign. McCain's support for Donald Trump must be even more personally demeaning for McCain than his less-than-wholehearted appearances on Bush's second campaign. The man not only flat-out insulted and demeaned McCain (something Dubya never did), Trump also (to the best of my knowledge) has never apologized for the slight. McCain's war record is a fundamental part of his personal life story. To attack that is to attack the core of McCain's being. So watching McCain being forced to kowtow to Trump now -- to save his own political skin -- means that the entire maverick concept is dead and buried forever.
Arizona voters have a wide maverick streak of their own, which is one reason why McCain finds himself in such a tight spot. McCain has never been as hardline on immigration as many of the Arizona voters who keep sending him to Washington. The state was ripe for a Trump-like figure to come along and challenge McCain in the primary, in fact. For McCain, disavowing Trump strongly (as he did during the presidential primary season) might mean losing enough Republican primary voters to lose the nomination. The margin of victory may be pretty thin, so McCain simply can't afford to lose a big block of primary votes.
However, this political opportunism cuts both ways. Even if McCain handily wins his primary, he's still going to have to face a strong Democrat in November. And Arizona's electorate is shifting a lot more blue, these days. This is due to multiple factors, including a general slow demographic shift of the Southwest from Republican to Democratic. New Mexico and Colorado are now pretty solidly blue states, while Nevada remains more of a tossup. Arizona may be the next red state to move into battleground status in the presidential race, and Democrats are busily signing up as many Latino voters there as they can (Southwestern Latinos have historically voted in low numbers relative to their actual population).
What this means is that John McCain will quite likely make the mother of all pivots, right after his primary win. His hand will be forced -- Donald Trump has announced he's giving a major immigration speech in Arizona on Wednesday, meaning McCain will only have a day to decide whether to join in the rally or not. Perhaps there will be a "scheduling conflict"?
John McCain has been walking a tightrope during this election season. He obviously (and with good reason) can't stand Donald Trump, but he's had to transition from denouncing him during the primaries to now "supporting the nominee of my party." But that could be temporary too -- McCain might just decide his general election chances would improve if he moves swiftly away from supporting Trump after wrapping up the nomination.
It's not pretty to watch a politician exhibit such naked self-preservation. McCain is showing that he'll do whatever it takes to get elected, even if that means supporting a man who belittled his time as a prisoner of war. He may find some excuse for refusing to support Trump in the near future, but it'll be no more than a convenience. After all, if he's now supporting Trump after all Trump's said (especially about him) during the campaign, what could possibly represent the straw that broke the camel's back? For McCain, it'll be no more than a calculated attempt to pander to independent voters who are not going to vote for Trump in November. Or, to put it another way, about as far from being a maverick as you can imagine.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant