Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan and former Arizona Republic columnist. He blogs on Arizona politics and history at Rogue Columnist. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at Bioreports.
(Bioreports)It’s tempting to say that President Donald Trump’s loss of Arizona is the revenge of the late US Sen. John McCain.
As a candidate, Trump said of the Arizona senator, who endured five and a half years at the notorious Vietnam prison nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton, “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
In 2019, after the senator’s death, Trump said, “I was never a fan of John McCain and I never will be.”
McCain had returned the antipathy. For example, when candidate Trump was caught on a recording making obscene remarks about women, McCain said, “Donald Trump’s behavior make(s) it impossible to continue to offer even conditional support for his candidacy.”
Before his death, McCain insisted his eulogies be delivered by President George W. Bush and his opponent in 2008, President Barack Obama. Trump wasn’t invited to the funeral.
The reality is that while McCain’s ghost may be smiling over the karma of Trump’s loss of Arizona, the McCain-Trump feud was only one factor.
While the senator was beloved by many in Arizona, not least because of his heroism in Vietnam (Trump avoided service claiming bone spurs), many residents new to the state have little knowledge of him.
About half of the state’s total population was added between the time McCain was first elected to the Senate in 1986 until his death, based on US Census Bureau data from 1980 and 2019. In addition, while many people came to the state every year, a significant number left — even if the total kept growing. Arizona added 2.2 million residents from 2010 to 2018, while seeing 1.7 million move to other states.
In other words, it’s entirely possible that this churn prevented the kind of civic attachment that would have left a large cohort of Arizonans holding a grudge against Trump over his treatment of McCain.
Many of these new Republican residents are likely ardent Trump supporters, as the President’s later narrowing of Joe Biden’s lead indicated. Still, polling this past month indicated some might abandon the President for many of the reasons that the rest of the country who voted for Biden did, especially Trump’s handling of the pandemic and his repeated lying.
But one big way McCain did helped Biden was through the endorsement of the Democratic nominee by McCain’s wife, Cindy McCain, in September. An Arizona native, heiress to a hugely successful Phoenix beer distributorship, and philanthropist, Cindy McCain carries powerful influence in the state.
In a series of tweets, Cindy McCain wrote, “My husband John lived by a code: country first. We are Republicans, yes, but Americans foremost. There’s only one candidate in this race who stands up for our values as a nation, and that is @JoeBiden.”
And “Joe and I don’t always agree on the issues, and I know he and John certainly had some passionate arguments, but he is a good and honest man. He will lead us with dignity. He will be a commander in chief that the finest fighting force in the history of the world can depend on, because he knows what it is like to send a child off to fight.”
Biden was also helped by the support of former state Attorney General Grant Woods, a Republican and longtime McCain friend. McCain’s daughter Meghan also supports Biden and has a powerful platform as a television personality.
While the John McCain factor may not have been decisive in the Arizona vote, for some it likely resonated. And it wasn’t only personal history and view of service that divided Trump from McCain. It was also their demeanor in presidential campaigning and ultimate defeat.
Remember when McCain stopped short a supporter who claimed Obama was “an Arab?” McCain cut her off, shook his head and said, “he’s a decent family man citizen who I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues …” Trump was an early “birther” on Obama and repeatedly threatened Hillary Clinton with prison while his supporters chanted, “Lock her up.”
When McCain lost to Obama in 2008, he gave a graceful concession speech. By contrast, Trump had no words of rebuke for his supporters — some armed — massing and chanting outside the elections department in Phoenix as vote counters worked inside last week. And to make matters worse, as election numbers started to turn against him, Trump made incendiary remarks from the White House last Thursday falsely claiming there has been an electoral fraud. It was a stunning and virtually unprecedented act by a president.
Was his defeat McCain’s revenge? Maybe in some cosmic sense, if not in a way that can be directly attributed in our world.