John McCain's long-time advisor Mark Salter explains why Arizona could mean trouble for Trump and the GOP in 2020

  • The Republican Party's difficulties in the traditionally red state of Arizona aren't likely to end with the election of Democrat Kyrsten Sinema to the U.S. Senate, according to a longtime political advisor to late GOP Sen. John McCain.
  • Mark Salter, who was a confidant to and co-author for McCain for decades, responded to Sinema's apparent victory by breaking down what it meant for President Trump and the GOP in the state.
  • His prognosis isn't good for Republicans — particularly if they tie themselves tightly to Trump, as Sinema's opponent, Martha McSally, did during the midterm races.
Democratic candidate Kyrsten Sinema speaks to supporters after officially winning the U.S. Senate race at the Omni Montelucia resort in Scottsdale, Arizona, U.S., November 12, 2018. 
Caitlin O'Hara | Reuters
Democratic candidate Kyrsten Sinema speaks to supporters after officially winning the U.S. Senate race at the Omni Montelucia resort in Scottsdale, Arizona, U.S., November 12, 2018. 

The Republican Party's difficulties in the traditionally red state of Arizona aren't likely to end with the election of Democrat Kyrsten Sinema to the U.S. Senate, according to a longtime political advisor to late Sen. John McCain.

Mark Salter, who was a confidant to and co-author for the Republican Arizona lawmaker and Washington icon for decades, responded to Sinema's victory, which became apparent nearly a week after Election Day, by breaking down what it meant for President Donald Trump and the GOP in the state.

Read more: Here are the seven senators most likely to lose their seats in 2020

His prognosis isn't good for Republicans — particularly if they tie themselves tightly to Trump, as Sinema's opponent, Martha McSally, did during the campaign.

"Trump, who barely won AZ two years ago, is even more disliked there now," Salter wrote, suggesting it could get worse for the president when he is up for re-election in two years. Salter, like McCain, is known to be critical of Trump.

The numbers back up Salter's argument about Trump's favorability and performance in the state. According to polling from Morning Consult, Trump had a net positive approval rating of 2 percentage points in Arizona in October, sharply down from 20 in January 2017, when he took office.

Trump won Arizona in 2016 by a margin of about 3.5 percentage points. It was a surprisingly small victory, given that Republicans have a strong presidential track record there. They have won the state in all but one election year dating to 1952. (Bill Clinton edged Bob Dole there in 1996.)

That could mean Democrats are in good position to make a play for Arizona's 11 electoral votes come 2020, according to Salter's reasoning. But it's also a bad omen if a pro-Trump Republican ends up on the ballot for the state's other Senate seat that year, Salter argued.

That candidate might actually be McSally. She could take over for Republican Jon Kyl, if he steps down next year, to fill out the rest of McCain's term. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican who easily won re-election this year, appointed Kyl, himself a former senator, in September following McCain's death.

The GOP had a favorable Senate map this year, having to defend only nine seats, while the Democrats had to defend 10 seats just in states Trump won. Republicans could end up gaining a net of two Senate seats following the midterms, bringing their majority to 53-47, after the recount in the Florida contest between Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican Rick Scott is decided and Mississippi concludes its runoff election Nov. 27. It might be a different story in 2020, though, as Republicans will possibly be defending 22 seats.

That makes a potential 2020 Senate race in Arizona even more pivotal.

McSally's profile grew after Republican Sen. Jeff Flake said he would not seek re-election. Flake, a staunch conservative, was nonetheless facing the prospect of a losing primary campaign because of his frequent criticism of Trump. (Flake also had a woeful 32 percent approval rating in Arizona, according to a Morning Consult survey published last month.) With Flake out of the picture, McSally won the Republican primary this year in large part by embracing Trump's hard-line agenda.

But that strategy didn't help her against Sinema, who ran as a moderate. It probably won't help her or whoever the GOP Senate candidate is the next time around, Salter predicted.

"A candidate running statewide in '20 who's closely identified with Trump will lose, and this time it won't be close," Salter wrote.