Former John McCain backers in Granite State to support Biden

Monitor staff
Published: 9/24/2020 5:07:39 PM

Sometime in 2015, Peter Spaulding found himself crisscrossing New Hampshire with Lindsay Graham and John McCain. The topic: Donald Trump. The mood: lighthearted.

“I remember riding in the car when they made jokes and wisecracks about Donald Trump,” said Spaulding, a Merrimack County Commissioner and Hopkinton resident, who helped lead McCain’s 2008 presidential primary campaign in New Hampshire “...The two of them could get joking pretty well in the car.”

At the time, Graham was mounting his own presidential bid, sticking his neck into an impossibly packed primary field eight years after his friend McCain did the same. To them, Trump was a temporary distraction.

Five years later, much has changed. McCain died in 2018, a vocal critic of Trump to the end. The rest of the Republican caucus in the U.S. Senate has more or less coalesced around now-President Trump’s priorities – Graham included.

This week, that new reality got a small jolt. Cindy McCain, the widow of U.S. Senator John McCain, made waves Wednesday morning by announcing her endorsement for Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, after years of Trump disparaging her late husband.

Spaulding was already a few steps ahead of her. Last month, the Hopkinton Republican had been approached by Mark Salter, one of McCain’s closest and longest-serving aides.“He called around and put together a group called ‘McCain alumni for Biden,’” Spaulding said in an interview Thursday.

The end result: An Aug. 26 letter signed by more than 100 former McCain senatorial and campaign staff members, urging a vote for Joe Biden. Spaulding, who was the chairman of the 2008 primary effort for McCain, is on the list along with several other New Hampshire names.

“Given the incumbent president’s lack of competent leadership, his efforts to aggravate rather than bridge divisions among Americans, and his failure to uphold American values, we believe the election of former Vice President Biden is clearly in the national interest,” the letter states.

The letter and the endorsement are the latest examples of Republicans breaking ranks against Trump prior to the November election.

In New Hampshire, the Cindy McCain endorsement lands in a swing state where McCain casts a long shadow. Far behind the pack in the Republican primary in 2007, McCain bet big on the Granite State, investing precious time and money here. And the Granite State delivered him the comeback he was hoping for, launching him to the front of the Republican stage and clearing the path for his nomination in 2008.

“I would say that outside of Arizona, New Hampshire is probably the state where John McCain had the deepest and most loyal following,” said Steve Duprey, the former chairman of the state Republican party and a prominent McCain supporter who has remained close with the family.

With that kind of history, what kind of sway does Cindy’s McCain’s endorsement have here? His New Hampshire backers aren’t sure.

On the one hand, Duprey says, veterans are a strong voting block in New Hampshire.

“New Hampshire has one of the highest percentages of either active or retired military personnel in the country,” he said. “We’re a very strong pro-military state.”

That could potentially influence the vote among veterans concerned about Trump’s reported comments about soldiers who die in wars – and of McCain’s record as a prisoner of war himself.

“They’re offended,” Duprey said. “Whether you disagreed with John McCain’s policies, I don’t know very many people who do not believe as I do that he was an American hero who spent his life in service to his country.”

On the other hand, Duprey said, Trump has done a “remarkable job of getting the party to fall in line behind him,” something likely to prove true among Granite State Republicans.

Despite his support for the McCains, Duprey is staying on the sidelines. The Republican, who was voted out as a state party delegate last year, declined to state publicly who he’ll be voting for. His name is not on the pro-Biden letter from McCain alumni.

Jim O’Brien, the Hopkinton school board chairman, signed the letter too. Back in 2008, he worked for the McCain team as a volunteer.

Since then, he has felt more and more adrift from party-line politics. He voted for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton as a Republican in 2016, and registered as an independent in 2018.

Leaving behind the Republican party was painful for O’Brien. He considers himself more in line with many Americans in the middle, without unbreakable ties to one party or another.

As for McCain, the impact is still to be seen, he said.

“I don’t expect that Cindy’s McCain endorsement is going to necessarily bring a bunch of partisan Republicans along,” O’Brien said. “I do think here in New Hampshire among those who are involved in politics ... there is a strong John McCain base of support.”

Spaulding still considers himself Republican, but his decision is clear: He will vote for Biden.

“The party left me,” he said.

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