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Can John McCain Survive the Year of Donald Trump?

John McCain faces a Trump-like primary opponent Tuesday and the challenges only mount for the general election this fall.
Sen. John McCain attends a Memorial Day Ceremony in Phoenix on May 30.Ralph Freso / AP file

Can John McCain survive the year of Donald Trump?

One part of that question will be answered Tuesday, when Arizona Republicans decide whether to re-nominate the 80-year-old senator for a sixth term or dump him. McCain’s leading primary challenger is Kelli Ward, a former Arizona state senator who is running a Trump-like campaign, bashing Washington elites, describing illegal immigration as one of the country’s biggest problems and strongly opposing any kind of “amnesty” for people who are undocumented.

The challenge from Ward forced a very unlikely political marriage between McCain and Trump. McCain couldn't afford to irritate the supporters of Trump, who won Arizona’s presidential primary in March by 22 percent. So McCain said in May that he would vote for Trump. Trump, needing to shore up his support among college-educated Republicans and the GOP establishment, earlier this month endorsed McCain over Ward.

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The two men are not close: Trump has argued McCain is not a war hero, since he was captured during his service in Vietnam, while McCain bashed the real estate mogul earlier this month for his controversial comments about the Khan family, the parents of a fallen soldier who spoke against Trump at the Democratic convention.

The second part of McCain's challenge will come if McCain defeats Ward on Tuesday, as expected. He will then immediately face a different, Trump-related problem. Ann Kirkpatrick, an Arizona congresswoman who is the heavy favorite to win the Democratic nomination, has been campaigning for months on one theme: John McCain is supporting Donald Trump and Arizona voters should punish him for doing so.

The Arizona race illustrates many of the broader trends that are shaping the 2016 elections. While Ward has praised Trump and been heavily promoted by the conservative site Breitbart, Arizona U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, a big McCain supporter, has been one of the most vocal figures in the Republican Party in opposition to Trump.

Arizona has voted Republican for president since 1996, but polls show a close race between Trump and Hillary Clinton, with the real estate mogul ahead by just 5 percent in a recent CNN/ORC survey. (Mitt Romney won the state by 10 percent in 2012.) Trump’s unpopularity combined with Arizona’s large Latino electorate (about 21 percent of the state’s voters in November are expected to be Latino) could help both Hillary Clinton and Kirkpatrick in the state.

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A McCain loss in the primary would have huge implications. It would eclipse even the defeat of then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014 as a sign of both the power and discontent in the anti-establishment wing of the Republican Party. It would be another illustration of the shift to the right of the GOP over the last eight years, since McCain himself was the party's presidential nominee in 2008.

The untested Ward could also be an easier opponent for Kirkpatrick, potentially making it easier for Democrats to win control of the Senate this November.

A McCain loss in the general election would suggest that the West is becoming an increasingly Democratic region and force out one of the more moderate members of the GOP in the Senate. McCain is often involved in compromises between Republicans and Democrats in the chamber and his role as a deal-maker could be enhanced if Hillary Clinton were president, since he and Clinton are friendly.

But polls suggest a McCain loss in either race is unlikely. The CNN survey showed McCain ahead 55 percent to 29 percent over Ward in the primary, and up 52 percent to 39 percent over Kirkpatrick in a hypothetical general election match-up.