The three amigos of the the U.S. Senate usually agree on foreign policy and national security issues.
But Republican Sens. Kelly Ayotte, Lindsey Graham and John McCain don’t quite see eye-to-eye on one thing: Donald Trump. All three senators have a different approach on dealing with the Republican presidential nominee.
Graham isn’t facing re-election in his home state of South Carolina in November and he’s made it clear that he does not support or endorse Trump.
“Graham has more leeway than Ayotte and McCain,” said Joseph Bafumi, professor of government at Dartmouth College. “He isn’t facing a tough election, which allows him to voice his concerns of Trump more than other candidates.”
In June, Graham encouraged Republicans who endorsed the billionaire mogul to rescind their support after Trump made comments that Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s Mexican heritage made him unfit to preside over lawsuits against him. Graham doesn’t face re-election until 2020.
“If anybody was looking for an off-ramp, this is probably it,” Graham told The New York Times. “There’ll come a time when the love of country will trump hatred of Hillary [Clinton].”
Ayotte, on the other hand, is facing a tough re-election in New Hampshire, running against Gov. Maggie Hassan in one of the most watched Senate races in the country. The junior senator and governor are neck and neck in the polls.
But Ayotte is walking a “fine line” with Trump in the Granite State. She says she is supporting Trump, but doesn’t endorse him.
“Ayotte needs re-election if the Republicans want to hold on to the Senate,” Bafumi said. “She could be a very prominent national figure and a promising star in the party, but her biggest obstacle is Trump.”
Ayotte has come out several times over the past few months to oppose some of Trump’s comments, but has not rescinded her support, a move that Democrats have criticized.
“She’s in this middle ground where she needs to support her party’s nominee, but also hold on to her own values,” Bafumi said.
McCain, the senior senator from Arizona, is in a similar situation as Ayotte, except he endorses and supports Trump, albeit not enthusiastically.
McCain has also been vocal about his disagreements with Trump, but still needs the Trump voters on his side, Bafumi said.
“McCain is slightly different than Ayotte in that he is already a national figure and known around the country,” he said. “He needs to keep the same folks who voted for him before, win over some of the independents and keep some edge with Latino voters, while being this national figure and supporting the presidential nominee. It’s harder for him to find a middle ground and he can’t do what Ayotte did.”
He is also facing a difficult primary, in which the most recent poll shows him trailing former state Sen. Dr. Kelli Ward by 9 points. However, in other polls matching him up against Democratic candidate Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick in the general election, he leads by about 5.5 points.
Ward is looking to court anti-establishment Republican voters who delivered a victory for Trump during the primaries and has called McCain out for his “disingenuous” support of Trump.
Bafumi said there is a lot more at stake in Ayotte’s race than McCain’s.
“McCain is sitting a little more comfortably than Ayotte,” he said. “Arizona has been traditionally Republican so he has that going for him, but Ayotte is in a state where anything can happen and traditional partisan stripes don’t always fit here.”
But Ayotte and McCain are facing a similar problem as they tread carefully with their support for Trump and not alienate voters in their respective states.
“People are really concerned, and swing voters and independent-minded folks might be uncomfortable with Trump,” Bafumi said. “How do I not upset the new people Trump is bringing into the party and also not turn off the swing voters that I needed in the past election?”