The Trump era has forced many Republicans into frustrating situations: defending unhinged tweets, coddling a president as if he’s a toddler and forcing principled conservatives to choose between the most progressive Democratic candidacy in modern history or, well, President Trump.

But Trump may have put Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) in the worst position of all. McSally, who was appointed to her seat in 2019 and is running for the remainder of John McCain’s unfinished term, probably wouldn’t have had much trouble winning in the pre-Trump era. But three of Trump’s specific political weaknesses — in the suburbs, with members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and with diverse electorates and older voters — have pushed the state left, leaving McSally caught between the president’s base and the voters she needs most.

The suburbs represent McSally’s biggest Trump-induced struggle. The vast majority of Arizona’s votes come from Maricopa and Pima counties, which roughly correspond to Phoenix and Tucson.

For years, these counties weren’t problems for Republicans. Maricopa used to be staunchly Republican, with older voters, immigration hard-liners and well-educated suburbanites coming together to vote for GOP politicians who ranged from immigration restrictionists such as former governor Jan Brewer to relative moderates such as the famously bipartisan Sen. John McCain. Democrats won Tucson, but not by margins large enough to overcome Phoenix and GOP-friendly rural areas.

But in 2016, Trump gave up suburban votes, losing ground in both counties.

That year, Trump won Arizona by a smaller margin than McCain in 2008 or 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, and the state has moved further left as his administration wore on. In the state’s 2018 Senate race, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema won Maricopa County by four points and notched a two-point statewide victory over McSally, giving the seat to the blue team for the first time since 1988.

But the suburbs aren’t McSally’s only problem — Trump has also closed off many of her most plausible avenues for pushing back on the suburban blue wave. Americans above age 65 have turned sharply toward Joe Biden, so she can’t easily appeal to the state’s solid senior population. Trump has turned off many Mormons, which probably isn’t helping McSally rally the state’s small but notable LDS population. And Trump’s relative resilience with Hispanic voters will help only so much in Arizona, where 90 percent of the fast-growing Hispanic population is Mexican American and Republican-leaning Cuban Americans are scarce.

That leaves McSally in an unenviable position. She has to stay somewhat close to the president to cater to the state’s Trumpian base (Trump won the state by over 20 points in the hotly contested 2016 GOP primary). But she also has to find ways to distance herself from Trump to appeal to voters who backed McCain and Romney but don’t support the president.

McSally’s problems can’t all be attributed to Trump. According to RealClearPolitics, she’s trailing Democratic nominee Mark Kelly, the husband of former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, by eight points, while Biden is leading Trump by three. McSally has speculated that voters who both support the president and are attracted to the former astronaut’s independent branding may be causing this split. Alternatively, some Trumpian Republicans could be temporarily withholding support from an insufficiently loyal McSally: In some polls, Trump gets a higher percentage of the Republican vote than McSally does.

But regardless of the reason for her underperformance, McSally didn’t turn Arizona purple. Trump did.

The Grand Canyon State’s demographics were changing long before Trump entered the political scene, yet Republicans such as Romney and McCain still put together a winning coalition there. But Trump has driven suburbanites away from the GOP and repelled swing voters, helping both Biden and Kelly get traction.

If Trump manages to push back against these demographic forces and win Arizona, McSally might have a chance. But if McSally loses, at least part of the blame will rest on Trump.


An earlier version of this column misidentified the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This version has been updated.

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