Seeking Primary Wins, Rubio and McCain Stay Mum About Trump
Policy + Politics

Seeking Primary Wins, Rubio and McCain Stay Mum About Trump

© Aaron Bernstein / Reuters

Earlier this year, in the heat of the Republican presidential primary campaign, Donald Trump called arch rival Sen. Marco Rubio “Little Marco,” and suggested that he had used money from the Florida Republican party to cover strictly personal expenses and should be indicted.

"Rubio stole from the Republican Party," Trump said of the Florida senator in their escalating war of words. “But you know what happened? They said, 'You stole from the party.' He says, 'No, I didn't.' 'Yes, you did, you had a driveway bill,' 'No, I didn't,' 'Yes, you did,' 'Oh, OK, well, uh,' he reimbursed them."

Related: How Marco Rubio Could Save the Senate for the GOP

The year before, Trump denounced another Republican senator who had crossed his path, John McCain of Arizona, a decorated Vietnam War era pilot who spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. During an appearance at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, in July 2015, the billionaire businessman said of McCain: “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

Under normal circumstances, comments like that would have irretrievably destroyed Trump’s relationship with Rubio and McCain and left a lingering bitterness. But these aren’t normal times. The youthful Rubio, 45, and the elder statesman McCain, who just turned 80, are both fighting to hang onto their Senate seats, beginning with GOP primary elections on Tuesday.

While the two no doubt would love to publicly denounce Trump as an unprincipled lout, both must scrupulously avoid offending Trump’s conservative supporters in their states to get past their primaries and move on to the general election. Trump is trailing in his general election campaign against Hillary Clinton and faces the prospects of widespread defections from many rank and file Republicans — especially more educated women.

After belatedly deciding to seek a second term as senator after his presidential campaign crashed and burned this spring, Rubio now can’t afford to offend Floridians who are still enthralled with Trump. Rubio, who once described Trump as “the most vulgar person ever to aspire to the presidency,” endorsed him in a video shown last month at the Republican National Convention.

Related: Trump to GOP Leadership: Sit Down and Shut Up

And McCain, who was first elected to the Senate in 1986 and ran as the Republican presidential nominee in 2008, is desperate to hang on for one last six-year term in Congress. But the long-time political maverick who frequently has clashed with the most conservative elements of the Arizona Republican party, has been forced to bite his tongue when anyone asks him about Trump.

McCain is almost certain to win his primary contest against GOP challenger Kelli Ward, a former state senator and physician, although there were signs his substantial lead in a CNN/ORC poll last week may be shrinking. Ward has said that McCain is too old for his job and should retire.

McCain has been frequently pressed by reporters to say whether he would pivot and speak out against Trump in the general election campaign — joining many of his Republican colleagues, including fellow Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who are distancing themselves from Trump. But he always has the same answer:

“No. There’s no reason to do that,” McCain told Politico during an interview in his campaign headquarters. “They [Arizona voters] all know me. Everybody in Arizona really knows me unless they just moved in.”

Related: How Trump’s Need for Vengeance Is Killing His Campaign

But McCain and Rubio may have to reconsider their strategies later this fall, in the event that Trump’s campaign begins to crumble in Arizona and Florida. Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who will challenge McCain this fall, ridicules the one time “maverick” for being afraid to stand up to Trump’s personal attacks.

Meanwhile, Rubio will coast to victory in his GOP primary on Tuesday against wealthy homebuilder Carlos Beruff. At the same time, two Democratic House members — Patrick Murphy and Alan Grayson — will slug it out in a nasty Democratic primary battle for the nomination.

Another Florida race that will get some attention: Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who recently was deposed as chair of the Democratic National Committee, is being challenged in the primary by Tim Conova, a law professor who was backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Schultz was forced out of her party post literally hours before the start of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, following leaks of party emails showing that Democratic officials had worked behind the scenes against Sanders and to help Clinton secure the Democratic nomination.