Trump looms large in primaries

Three vulnerable Senate Republicans are finding it harder to distance themselves from Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want to use 'adversary' to describe Russia Comey urges Americans to vote for Democrats in midterms Roby wins Alabama GOP runoff, overcoming blowback from Trump criticism MORE because they have yet to win their primary elections.

Sens. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteNew Hampshire governor signs controversial voting bill Former Arizona senator to shepherd Supreme Court nominee through confirmation process Shut the back door to America's opioid epidemic MORE (R-N.H.), John McCainJohn Sidney McCainPence, Pompeo urged Trump to clarify Russia remarks: report GOP lawmaker renews call for Trump to release tax returns after Putin summit House conservatives criticize media, not Trump, for Putin furor MORE (R-Ariz.) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash Senate adds members to pro-NATO group McConnell reassures Europe on Russia MORE (R-Fla.) are all in a difficult spot because they are running against primary opponents who have embraced the GOP presidential nominee's populist stances and rhetoric.

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The New Hampshire Senate primary is scheduled for Sept. 13, and the Arizona and Florida primaries take place Aug. 30.

Rubio, himself a former presidential contender, has reluctantly endorsed Trump, putting himself on the right side of Trump’s supporters in Florida. But Ayotte and McCain are treading carefully around the controversial GOP nominee.

Ayotte has kept Trump at arm’s length, even as Democrats charge that she has failed to “stand up” to the businessman and condemn his rhetoric. 

GOP strategists say Ayotte is constrained by her upcoming primary against a Trump-like challenger and the large number of pro-Trump Republicans in New Hampshire. Trump won the state’s presidential primary in February by nearly 20 points. 

“Something [Ayotte] has to keep in mind is that she does have a primary in six weeks. It’s not that she has to worry about it as a threat to lose, but Trump did get 35 percent of Republican primary voters a couple of months ago,” said Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. 

“The fact that she has an opponent has been a factor in the language and rhetoric she’s used about Trump all year,” he added. 

Despite Trump’s recent missteps — including inviting Russia to hack his Democratic opponent, picking a fight with the father of a soldier killed in Iraq and kicking a baby out of a rally — Ayotte has not withdrawn her support for him.

Ayotte said she was “appalled” by Trump’s criticism of Khizr Kahn, the father of Capt. Humayun Kahn, who was killed during the Iraq War in 2014. Yet she says she still plans to vote for Trump. 

President Obama this week noted the various rebukes Republicans have directed at Trump and asked them, “Why are you still endorsing him?” 

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) on Thursday released a new digital video taking aim at Ayotte and McCain for not repudiating their nominee. 

“From the president to fellow Republicans to American voters, no one can understand why vulnerable Republican senators continue to support Donald Trump’s hate-ridden campaign for the presidency,” said DSCC spokeswoman Sadie Weiner. 

Disavowing Trump would not cause Ayotte or McCain to lose their reelection bids, but it would give ammo to their primary opponents to use over the next several weeks, which could erode their support among a part of the Republican base.

Ayotte’s opponent, Jim Rubens, endorsed Trump immediately after he won the state’s presidential primary and is running as “a Trump populist and immigration hawk,” according to Grant Bosse, editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader.

McCain’s primary opponent, Kelli Ward, has embraced Trump in her effort to topple the five-term incumbent. She has pledged to support Trump's proposed Supreme Court nominees and attacked McCain for voting in the past for justices selected by Democratic presidents, such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Ward has also joined Trump in criticizing the Kahn family and bashed McCain for defending them.

McCain, the GOP’s candidate for president in 2008, said Trump’s nomination did not give him “unfettered license to defame those who are the best among us.” 

But McCain later told reporters he still “will support the nominee of the party,” adding, “if I change my mind, I’ll let you know.” 

The DSCC issued a press release Tuesday stating that McCain has “endorsed” Trump 49 times.

A spokesman for Rep. Ann KirkpatrickAnn KirkpatrickLatina Leaders to Watch 2018 Gold Star father attacked by Trump steps up role in Dem primaries House Dems highlight promising new candidates MORE (Ariz.), McCain’s likely Democratic opponent in the general election, said, “John McCain has clung to Donald Trump in a desperate attempt to have his political career despite the nominee’s hateful and dangerous proposals and rhetoric.”

It would be easier for McCain to distance himself from Trump if he didn’t have to have to face Republican primary voters at the end of the month. Trump won 47.1 percent of the vote in Arizona’s GOP presidential primary earlier this year.

“It’s a tightrope that you’re walking,” said Mike Noble, a Phoenix-based Republican pollster who doesn’t have a client in the Senate race.

While Ayotte and McCain have stopped short of condemning Trump in broad terms, it hasn’t gained them much in return. Trump refused to endorse either of them until late Friday, when he finally relented, telling an audience in Green Bay, Wis., "I need a Republican Senate and a House to accomplish all of the change we have to make." 

The gesture toward party unity reversed the criticisms he leveled at them only a few days before. 

Trump suggested Ayotte was “weak” in an interview with The Washington Post.

“I know she’s given me no support, zero support, and yet I’m leading her in the polls,” he told The Post. “We need loyal people in this country. We need fighters in this country. We don’t need weak people.”

In the same interview, he criticized McCain for not doing more to help veterans.

“I’ve never been there with John McCain because I’ve always felt that he should’ve done a much better job for the vets,” he said. 

Rubio has taken a different approach in Florida, which Trump won overwhelmingly earlier this year in the presidential primary. 

He is running in the Aug. 30 primary against millionaire Carlos Beruff, who says, “I’m not ashamed to support Trump.” 

Beruff has criticized Rubio for not backing Trump’s call to temporarily bar Muslim immigrants from the United States and build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Rubio has tried to take the issue off the table by embracing Trump more fully than Ayotte and McCain. Trump, in turn, has urged his supporters to reward him.

“Go for Marco!” Trump urged his fans at a rally Wednesday in Daytona Beach, Fla.