Originally Published: March 29, 2016 6:20 p.m.
PRESCOTT – Sen. John McCain said Tuesday, March 29, he doesn’t downplay the prospects of a serious primary challenger for his seat on the nation’s Capitol Hill.
“It’s a real concern,” he said, acknowledging several of his Senate Republican colleagues lost elections in recent years from right-wing primary challengers. “I take every election and opponent with utmost seriousness.”
The most likely challenger he faces from his own party is state Sen. Kelli Ward, of Lake Havasu City.
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Sen. John McCain Visits Prescott March 29, 2016
However, McCain said the reason for turnover among GOP senators is one of the same reasons voters are rejecting establishment candidates for the White House.
“To some degree, they had forgotten where they came from,” McCain said of senators who lost primary races.
He said he isn’t running solely on his voting record in Washington, acknowledging mistrust of career politicians is one of the factors driving support for presidential candidates Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“This is probably one of the most unusual election cycles we’ve ever seen,” he said.
At a Prescott Chamber of Commerce luncheon Tuesday, McCain bemoaned the quality of discourse in the campaign.
“The level of dialogue and discourse is shameful and gross. You should not accuse your opponents of character flaws or conversation of size of people’s hands and all that,” he said.
During a series of appearances in Prescott on Tuesday, McCain spoke of the issues he believes matter to the country as a whole and to Arizona specifically.
On Monday, his staff released the latest version of his plan to improve veteran services.
He said there’s been increased participation in both Tricare, the country’s health care program for current and retired military personnel and their families, as well as the Veterans Choice program that expands options for veterans.
“We can say there’s been improvement, but we can also say there’s a lot that can be done,” McCain said in an exclusive interview with The Daily Courier. “There’s still, I think, a bureaucratic problem that it’s not as responsive to the needs of veterans as necessary.”
He was quick to say the problems in the Department of Veterans Affairs are administrative and systematic.
“We have some very dedicated people at the VA,” he said. “It’s the system that needs to be fixed.”
McCain said one indicator that problems remain is the continued requests his office receives from veterans trying to navigate the VA system.
Though he admitted it’s one of the lesser issues on voters’ minds, McCain repeated previous statements against Senate consideration of a Supreme Court nominee: “It’s not a matter of the nominee, it’s a matter of whether the people should vote or not.”
He said his position doesn’t contradict his previous statement as one of the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of 14” that worked toward a compromise in 2005 to allow confirmation of 10 judicial nominees, since those judges were for lower courts, and the question before the Senate today relates to the Supreme Court.
On the foreign policy front, the senator said meetings with retired Gen. James Clapper, the country’s director of national intelligence underscored his concerns about national security.
“Among other things he had to say, there will be more attacks on the U.S. and Europe,” McCain said. “And in my view, it’s the failed foreign policy of Barack Obama.”
McCain said the nation needs to be part of a coalition of 100,000 troops who attack the Islamic State group’s headquarters in Raqqa, Syria.
“This operation in Brussels was much more complex that we originally imagined,” he said. “Until we have a president who leads, this problem is going to get worse.”
McCain said troops from Middle East nations need to lead the way, and should pay for the assault, but the U.S. should be among them.
“These people are not 10 feet tall,” he said. “They aren’t invincible. We can destroy them.”
He said defense contractors that play a vital role in Arizona’s economy would benefit from military actions not just in Syria, but as the need arises in China, Iran and Russia.
“But I have to also tell you, if I don’t think we need something, I’m not going to support it just because it’s manufactured in Arizona,” he said.
Closer to home, McCain said fire and water continue to be two issues that impact most of Arizona.
He said land management agencies need to take a more rigorous approach to removing salt cedar, also known as tamarisk, which consumes an estimated 840,000 acre-feet of water in the Colorado River Basin.
He said the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies need to be more responsive to companies seeking permits that would remove overgrowth from forests.
And he said on Wednesday he will meet with Gov. Doug Ducey and representatives from the Navajo and Hopi tribes in an effort to settle water disputes.
McCain said the increased use of synthetic heroin needs to be addressed, both by cutting off supply sources crossing into the country and through education. In an homage to the late Nancy Reagan, he suggested the country revisit her “Just say no” campaign.
“I’m optimistic, despite the bad news I gave you about America,” he said. “I’d still rather be in the United States than any other country on earth.”