A serious re-election fight wasn’t what Republican John McCain expected when he returned to the Senate after losing the presidency.
Yet that’s just what he’s got.
The four-term senator is battling for his political life in a race that embodies the volatility of an unpredictable election year. He’s facing former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, a fellow Republican pushing him farther to the right as GOP voters demand conservative purity in their candidates and punish anyone with ties to Washington establishment.
Two longtime Senate incumbents have fallen — Bob Bennett, R-Utah, and Arlen Specter, D-Pa. A third — Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark. — could see her hopes dashed this Tuesday in a runoff amid voter inclination to reward political neophytes who adhere to party principles over experience.
McCain’s popularity fell in Arizona as he spent years campaigning outside of it, twice for the White House. Hayworth, a radio talk show host who had been in Congress for a dozen years but lost to a Democrat in 2006, saw a chance for a political comeback.
The behemoth in the race, McCain has a decades-old political organization, millions in the bank and six campaign offices. He’s counting on his deep ties to Arizona and legions of longtime backers to carry him through. In contrast, Hayworth has never run statewide, is struggling to raise money and has just two offices. But he’s being fueled by disaffected McCain backers and voters hungry for new leadership.
“He’s been there too long. And he hasn’t done anything for Arizona,” Ally Miller says of McCain, 73. “It’s time for someone new.”
Among Hayworth supporters, there’s a feeling that McCain hasn’t been a loyal Republican, he’s ignored Arizona and his time has passed. Many have voted for him for years — because, they say, there wasn’t another option. With the 51-year-old Hayworth, people fed up with the status quo — and unwilling to automatically give McCain a new six-year term — have somewhere to turn.
At a Hayworth appearance at a Tucson library, attended by roughly 50 backers who gave the candidate a warm reception, the chorus of complaints sounded like a death knell for McCain.
“Hayworth is a true conservative patriot,” said John Kessler. “McCain has become a big government, tax-and-spend liberal.”
Added Joe Boogaart: “He’s changing positions for political reasons. He’s being a typical politician. So I’m taking a stand this time.”
And this from Benjamin Brookhart: “We need someone who is going to stand on conservative principles and not be a Republican in name only.”
But the compliments for McCain flowed a day later on the western edge of the state in tourist haven Lake Havasu, where McCain appeared at four events in a single afternoon.
He greeted two dozen people at the local Chamber of Commerce, popped into a fire station to chat up firefighters and thanked a boisterous crowd of at least 100 volunteers as he opened his downtown campaign office. He held court before a crowd nearly twice that size during a question-and-answer session where he told well-worn campaign trail jokes and answered questions on everything from immigration to spending to the oil spill.
His backers don’t trust Hayworth, labeling him nothing more than a media personality who had a questionable brush with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff during his time in Congress. They look past McCain’s partnering with Democrats even if they’re unsettled by the one-time maverick. And they forgive his change on issues such as immigration, saying he’s listening to the will of his constituents.
“I’ve heard a lot of bad things about J.D. Hayworth,” says Carol Brown.
Her husband, Warren Brown, nods and interjects: “But McCain’s a good man. He’s more honest than most politicians. He’s fought for Arizona.”
Bob Armogeva is a lifelong Democrat who plans to vote in the GOP primary — and told McCain so: “I’m not voting for any incumbent except for you.” After McCain thanked him, he explained: “He has done so much for Arizona. He’s a fair-minded person — even if he is a Republican.”
Hayworth is banking on McCain’s long history with the state being a vulnerability.
“There’s McCain fatigue in Arizona,” Hayworth declares.
Recognizing that the notion could be true to a degree, McCain recently shook up his campaign to include veterans of his presidential run and he’s gone on the attack. TV commercials criticize Hayworth as “an avid earmarker” and aides highlight Hayworth’s links to Abramoff.
In appearances, McCain promises: “I will work to stop this spending spree in Washington.” He doesn’t mention that he voted for the Wall Street bailout.
The senator, who once co-sponsored a comprehensive immigration reform bill, goes to lengths to explain his immigration position as the state has adopted one of the toughest laws in the nation. He once dismissed the effectiveness of building a border fence on the U.S.-Mexico border. Now, in an ad, he says, “Complete the danged fence.”
“He’s real. He gets what Arizona wants. He delivers. I trust him 100 percent,” said Kimberly Nier after watching McCain during a town-hall event in a packed hotel ballroom.
The Aug. 24 primary is open to independents, adding to the uncertainty. The four largest tea party groups in Arizona are staying out of the race, so there’s no telling which candidate will emerge with more support from activists.
“The anger and frustration is real. It’s unprecedented and it’s deserved because there’s a disconnect between Washington, D.C., and the people,” McCain tells supporters everywhere he goes, mindful that this race is a referendum on him and the headwinds are fierce.
Still, he says: “I’m confident we’re going to win this race. But I never take anything for granted.”
Several Democrats are seeking the nomination, including former Tucson City Councilman Rodney Glassman, former state Health Services Director Cathy Eden and retired investigative reporter John Dougherty, whose reporting in the late 1980s helped put a spotlight on McCain’s role in the Keating Five savings and loan scandal.
McCain aides privately say that the results of other primaries have been unsettling, but they dispute the notion that their boss will be the next to fall.
McCain insists: “We’re doing fine and we’re going to win.” But he acknowledges the environment is taking a toll; polls show him in the midteens over Hayworth when he’d be leading his opponent by 20-plus points in any other year.
Hayworth is banking on McCain’s long history being a vulnerability.
“It’s time to thank John McCain for his service and welcome him home,” Hayworth says. He frames the race as between a “conveniently conservative” incumbent and a “consistently conservative” challenger.