McCain’s dilemma

Somewhere, in his new life as a political hermit, Sen. John McCain must be grinding his teeth. Facing a primary challenge from the right in his campaign for reelection, McCain (R-Ariz.) has gone from spending nearly a decade as a hyper-exposed, perennial presidential candidate to being someone you can only find on Twitter.

But with a tough decision to make any day now, McCain will reluctantly do what he has avoided for so long: make news. This will happen when McCain announces his vote for or against the confirmation of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court. Either choice will be surprising — risk losing votes in a primary by supporting her, or risk losing votes in the general by alienating Hispanic voters in a purpling state where the Hispanic population is double the national average. President Barack Obama’s selection of Sotomayor was exactly the kind of complication McCain really didn’t need.

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McCain’s attempt to woo Arizona Republicans is challenged by his maverick identity and long history of bucking his party. A founder of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps has announced his candidacy and criticized McCain for “reckless bailout spending” (he voted last fall for the Troubled Asset Relief Program) and a record of “opting to hold our nation’s border security hostage to his amnesty schemes.” So while McCain has spent time blasting Obama’s energy reform plans, his reaction to the election in Iran and his policies that have grown deficits and debt, he hasn’t spent much time keeping that promise he made on election night 2008: to “do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face.” Most notable is the absence of the bipartisan dealmaker in the midst of the brutal battle over healthcare reform.

This week, McCain’s close friend Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) complicated matters — or possibly laid some groundwork for McCain — when he broke ranks with GOP leaders to announce his strong support for Sotomayor. He noted that he had fought hard for McCain to win the election and that he “didn’t feel good about the election,” but said he felt good about Sotomayor, that she is “a good character,” “competent, not just qualified” and that “America has changed for the better with her selection.”

Graham, who criticized Obama during the hearings for choosing to oppose Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito on an ideological basis, also commended three Democrats on the committee for voting in favor of Roberts and “deciding to vote for someone you wouldn’t have picked.”

Because McCain voted in favor of Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter, many could assume he will remain orthodox and, like Graham, vote solely on qualifications and not ideology. Yet McCain voted against Sotomayor when she was confirmed to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in 1998. And McCain’s fellow Arizona senator, Jon Kyl (R), is voting against Sotomayor.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a moderate Republican running for the Senate who is also facing a more conservative primary challenger, announced he opposed Sotomayor’s confirmation. Crist is facing Marco Rubio, a former Speaker in the State Legislature who is Hispanic, in their bid to replace retiring Florida Republican Sen. Mel Martinez. (Martinez has announced his support for Sotomayor). While Democrats intend to use Crist’s opposition to Sotomayor against him in the general campaign, the Democrats vying in the primary who poll 30 or more points behind Crist seem no match for his high popularity.

Crist is also a friend of McCain’s. Perhaps McCain is consulting with both Graham and Crist. We will learn soon — likely by Tweet rather than a press conference — which friend McCain is going to disagree with.


Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.