Kari Lake has repeatedly attacked John McCain's legacy. His family says they feel betrayed

Jimmy McCain reads the poem "The Requiem" at a memorial service for his father, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., at Washington National Cathedral in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018. McCain died Aug. 25, from brain cancer at age 81.
Stacey Barchenger
Arizona Republic

Kari Lake's repeated attacks on Arizona's late Sen. John McCain — whom she has called a "loser" and recently claimed still ruled the Republican party despite his death four years ago — have left at least one McCain family member in disbelief.

McCain's youngest son, 33-year-old James "Jimmy" McCain, spoke out after Lake's latest negative comments about the six-term U.S. senator, whom Lake has increasingly portrayed as a villain in her campaign for governor.

Jimmy McCain said he and his family members are dismayed and feel betrayed by the comments from a woman they once considered a close friend.

"I'm not trying to hurt anyone, I'm just trying to say I don't understand where this person came from, because back then, we were thick as thieves," Jimmy McCain said in a phone interview about Lake.

"It's abnormal for me to have someone that's this close to me just flip like this," he added later.

Jimmy McCain said in several years of friendship, which began in about 2015 after Lake extended an invite to family matriarch Cindy McCain, Lake only said positive things about his father.

Kari Lake speaks at the Save America rally held by former President Donald Trump in Florence on Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022.

But now, John McCain is a frequent target of Lake as she seeks the Republican nomination to replace Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey. Just as former President Donald Trump blasted Arizona's famed senator as part of a long-running feud, Lake is following suit in a campaign that echoes Trump's unconventional style.

Lake's campaign spokespeople did not respond Thursday to emailed questions for this article nor to follow up text messages. 

Late last week, Lake told a conservative podcaster that John McCain was "reaching up from the grave trying to keep power on Arizona."

"It was never about power that helped the people of Arizona, it was never about that," Lake said. "He had complete power over Arizona and rarely did he do anything good for the people."

A minute later in the same interview, after saying the establishment was afraid of losing influence on the party, Lake said she wanted to work "to bring the Republican party together."

In 2018, following John McCain's death, Lake called the long-serving senator from a decorated military family "a war hero, icon and a force to be reckoned with."

Four years later on the campaign trail, she now refers to him as a "loser" of the state's Republican establishment. She told his fans to "get the hell out" of a right-wing event in December.

Lake has unabashedly aligned herself with the Donald Trump wing of the Republican party, a farther right contingent that has taken control of state GOP politics and often attacks more traditional members like McCain and Ducey, labeling them leaders of an establishment political class.

This year, however, the former president's role as kingmaker is being tested in races around the country, including Arizona, where election forecasters say the governorship is within reach of either a Republican or a Democrat.

Attacks may help in primary, hurt later

Trump's support will certainly help Lake in a tough Republican primary on Aug. 2, where she faces political veteran and former congressman Matt Salmon, former member of the Board of Regents Karrin Taylor Robson, and two other candidates, local business owners Scott Neely and Paola Tulliani Zen.

Lake's sentiment on John McCain signals a short-term strategy. While her attacks on the late senator might curry favor with Trump's America First acolytes, they could also turn off moderate Republicans and the state's independent voters, who make up a third of the registration rolls and play a pivotal role in general elections.

Democratic President Joe Biden won Arizona in 2020 in part due to Republicans who voted for him at the top of the ticket but stayed with their party further down the ballot. Cindy McCain endorsed Biden in that race. 

Jimmy McCain, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq and later Afghanistan, is the second-youngest of John McCain's seven children. He has largely stayed out of the political spotlight, and said in an interview he didn't want to be seen as trying to hurt Lake. 

But he wanted to convey his confusion about Lake's attacks on his deceased father, who cannot defend himself. He suggested Lake was doing so to generate news coverage of her campaign or get her voters fired up.

'I don't understand why'

"The word that pops into my head is charlatan; say whatever you want," he said. "You're fine, when he's alive, to come into my home. Now he's dead, and it's not conducive to your election."

Jimmy McCain told The Arizona Republic he and his mother, Cindy McCain, met Lake after she personally invited them out to a bar in about 2015. At the time, Lake worked as a news anchor for Phoenix's Fox 10.

Jimmy McCain said they became fast friends, and Lake later visited his home, offering parenting advice and dropping off baby clothes after Jimmy and his wife had their first child in 2019. Three years later, the McCains would watch, "astonished" and "blown away," in Jimmy's words, as Lake disparaged John McCain.

"It hurts," Jimmy McCain said. "It's uncomfortable. That's the perfect word. It's uncomfortable. I don't understand it, and I don't understand why. ... I don't understand how you can sit in my home and hold my child and then turn around and say these things."

Reach reporter Stacey Barchenger at stacey.barchenger@arizonarepublic.com or 480-416-5669. Follow her on Twitter @sbarchenger.