Six months of trying to outflank Sen. John McCain from the right produced less support, less money, fewer endorsements and lower poll numbers than J.D. Hayworth and his dedicated followers had anticipated.
First, it was former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the tea party icon who endorsed McCain even though her Arizona admirers are largely backing Hayworth. Then it was Arizona Right to Life and the National Rifle Association, endorsements that pack a punch in Republican primaries. Most recently, the revered National Review gave its imprimatur to McCain, though the publication and the senator haven’t always agreed on the issues.
When Hayworth entered the race in January, McCain was at his most vulnerable point in decades. Polling showed McCain had a lead within the margin of error and was struggling to redefine himself as a Republican loyalist. But polls now show McCain with a solid lead over his boisterous challenger.
“I think one of the real successes of McCain’s campaign so far is that he’s been able … to break apart what we all assumed was Hayworth’s conservative coalition,” said Republican political consultant Chris Baker, of the Scottsdale-based firm Blue Point LLC.
Baker said the McCain campaign may have engineered a sort of domino effect: Each endorsement shows the next group that backing McCain is a safer bet than it may have first appeared, and Republican voters seem to be following the same trend.
Lisa Camooso Miller, a former communications director with the Republican National Committee, said groups such as the NRA and Right to Life often support candidates whom they feel have the best shot of successfully pushing their issues. It’s hard to ignore McCain’s three decades in Congress, she said.
“I sure do know there’s a political reality in supporting the ultimate victor in the fight,” she said.
Hayworth has portrayed himself as the candidate of Republicans who have long felt that McCain is far too centrist or liberal on issues they hold dear. But McCain has attacked Hayworth’s conservative credentials, both in and out of Congress, and seems to be getting out a message that Hayworth isn’t as conservative as advertised.
“They don’t see him as a rock-star conservative. They don’t see J.D. the same way J.D. sees himself,” Baker said of Beltway conservatives. “I think he will be a lot better than he used to be. But for these groups, what they know about J.D. is what they saw, and they saw a guy who was, for all intents and purposes, a middle-of-the-roader.”
McCain has focused Hayworth’s reputation in Congress as a pork-barrel spender, a serious offense to many conservatives. And the senator has run an undeniably negative campaign against Hayworth, openly mocking him and attacking his credibility.
The McCain campaign has posted videos online poking fun at Hayworth for questioning the authenticity of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, suggesting that allowing gay marriage could pave the way for men to wed horses, and especially for appearing in a 2007 infomercial urging people to take advantage of “free money” from government grants.
The infomercial for the National Grants Conferences has been the most damning revelation yet, combining the promotion of government spending with a host of informercial stereotypes. It prompted the popular FOX News personality Glenn Beck to declare that Hayworth’s campaign is over. The McCain campaign quickly released a new online video ridiculing Hayworth, which it dubbed his “second infomercial.”
“J.D.’s gotten himself into some trouble and he’s made some mistakes here, and the McCain campaign has capitalized,” said political consultant Chad Willems, whose client list includes prominent Hayworth supporters like Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. “Ridicule does work.”
Hayworth said he fully expected McCain to turn his “mudslinging machine” against him. With a record that includes a 2007 push for comprehensive immigration reform, opposition to tax cuts passed by former President George W. Bush and a key role in passing a landmark campaign finance reform bill that bears his name, McCain has a lot to answer for, Hayworth said, and he needs to distract voters’ attention from his less-than-stellar record on conservative issues.
“He cannot run on his own record. He’s got to run away from it,” Hayworth said.
That record, however, has not pushed many conservative groups into the arms of the Hayworth campaign. Many Hayworth supporters were livid when the pro-life group Arizona Right to Life endorsed McCain, despite his support for embryonic stem cell research and Hayworth’s “perfect record” on pro-life issues.
David Roney, a former chairman of Arizona Right to Life’s PAC, said he believes the group — which he left before the endorsement controversy — acted out of political pressure rather than the best interests of the pro-life movement.
“I think they have political ties to the senator that I think clouded their judgment,” Roney said.
Walter Opaska, Arizona Right to Life PAC’s current chairman, said the group has an “ongoing discussion” with McCain over stem-cell research, and still disagrees with him on the issue. But McCain is still a reliable vote for pro-life conservative judges, consistently opposes federal funding for abortion and has voiced his support for a constitutional amendment banning abortion.
“We go home with the person who brought us to the dance,” Opaska said.
The NRA endorsed McCain despite his past support for closing the so-called “gun show loophole.” Todd Rathner, a member of NRA’s board of directors and a lobbyist for the organization in Arizona, said McCain has largely repaired his Second Amendment credentials since abandoning the gun show issue with opposition to extending the federal assault weapons ban and Washington, D.C.’s firearms ban.
Those stances were enough for the NRA to back McCain under its “friendly incumbent” policy.
“He lost on the issue, and ever since then he’s been working to repair his relationship with the gun-owning community,” Rathner said of the gun-show issue. “If you don’t allow politicians to redeem themselves once they make a mistake, what good are you doing?”
McCain isn’t as conservative as some would like, but he is conservative enough to win support from groups that some political observers expected to back Hayworth. In a June 28 endorsement article, National Review said McCain has usually been on the conservative side of political controversies, citing his commitment to national security, his opposition to government spending and his votes for conservative Supreme Court justices.
If McCain had a more conservative challenger, National Review wrote, the endorsement might have gone elsewhere. But while Hayworth’s record is conservative, the article read, it isn’t conservative enough to make a compelling case against McCain.
“He may not be Marco Rubio, but he’s not Arlen Specter either,” the editorial said of McCain.
Not everyone is convinced. Many conservatives still denounce McCain over the lead role he took in a 2007 push for comprehensive immigration reform, despite his recent about-face on the issue. The National Border Patrol Council and Phoenix Lax Enforcemement Association, for example, endorsed Hayworth.
Hayworth said he hasn’t sought many of the endorsements that McCain supporters have touted as coups. And Shane Wikfors, Hayworth’s campaign manager, chalked up the Palin endorsement to loyalty to her former running mate.
Some in the Hayworth camp see more sinister reasons behind the lack of support for the former congressman. Hayworth supporters write blog posts about the “McCain mafia” that uses the senator’s clout to threaten and cajole people into backing him. Some observers comment privately that McCain’s broad base of support is the result of hard work — and intimidation.
In Arizona, no one has been on the receiving end of McCain’s wrath more than Arizona Republican Party Chairman Randy Pullen. Since Pullen openly criticized McCain’s stance on illegal immigration in 2007, McCain has undercut the chairman at every turn.
In February, National Journal reported that McCain compelled the RNC to withhold campaign funds that would normally go to the state party and instead channel them to allies in the Yuma County Republican Party.
Hayworth said people know there’s a price to pay for opposing McCain.
“They essentially run a campaign based on intimidation and implicit, implied threats,” Hayworth said. “People give him a wide berth and the campaign coffers get full.”
McCain campaign spokesman Brian Rogers said the allegations are nothing but unsubstantiated charges.
“It’s what you say when you have nothing else to say, I guess,” Rogers said.
Former U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon, a longtime McCain ally, said he doesn’t think conservative groups have any fear of retribution from McCain. But everyone in politics knows the old adage, he said — “If you’re going to take a shot at the king, you better kill him.”
With double-digit leads in most polls and a hefty fundraising advantage — McCain reported raising nearly $5.5 million by the end of March, while Hayworth said he has raised about $2 million so far — McCain looks stronger than he’s been at any time since Hayworth jumped into the race.
Hayworth said he doesn’t care what the polls say and doesn’t care about endorsements from Washington insiders that he always expected to go to McCain. As conservatives hold out hope that their dream of finally ousting McCain is near, Hayworth isn’t letting up.
“The Washington establishment was going to stick with McCain,” McCain said. “That theme has not changed. It really says more about the way Washington goes, as opposed to the way Arizona goes.”