TUCSON-Among lawmakers threatened with losing their seats this November because of federal expansions enacted under President Barack Obama is the man who was his presidential challenger, Sen. John McCain.
Arizona's August primary was considered a lock for the elder statesman just months ago. But his record of reaching across the aisle on legislation ranging from immigration to climate change has left some Republican voters wondering whether they can depend on him to fight Democrats on key issues. The title McCain once prized as an asset, "maverick," has left the door open for a challenge from former U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth.
A few years ago Hayworth dismissed the idea of running against the 23-year incumbent, telling The Weekly Standard that McCain's polling numbers were simply too strong. Then Hayworth lost his House seat in 2006 in a tide of change that swept many Republicans out of office. He turned to talk radio, and now claims conditions are ripe for defeating what he calls McCain's false brand of conservatism.
"Midterm elections are often a referendum on the performance of the chief executive," said Hayworth, arguing that McCain is a moderate who has proved he cannot be counted on to hold back the Obama agenda. In particular, he is hammering McCain for his vote on the TARP bailouts, his support for cap-and-trade, and his sponsorship of the 2005 McCain-Kennedy bill Hayworth claims provided amnesty for illegal immigrants. He has promised that if Arizona voters send him to the U.S. Senate, he will, in contrast to McCain, be a "consistent conservative voice."
This isn't the first time McCain has faced in-party opposition, but in the past it gained no traction; McCain hasn't faced a serious state challenge since his first congressional race in 1982. Now that's changed-enough so that voter ire directed at Obama could be spilling over onto the man who once opposed him. In January Rasmussen polling had Hayworth trailing by 22 points, by mid-March the gap narrowed to 7 points-48 percent McCain, 41 percent Hayworth.
To boost his conservative bona fides, McCain has turned to the woman who proved to be the most polarizing figure of the presidential race. More than 5,000 people gathered at Tucson's Pima County Fairgrounds on March 26 to see former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin join her former running mate in their first public appearance since 2008. As Palin took the stage, the crowd included not only Tea Party activists, run-of-the-mill Republicans, and curious Tucsonans, but also the national media. Fox News Channel, CNN, and C-Span offered live broadcasts of her speech.
"I couldn't wait to get the McCain-Palin team back together again," Palin crowed to chants of "Sarah, Sarah." She described McCain as a man of principle and of the people, urging Arizona voters to send him back to Washington to continue his fight against reckless spending and the Obama-Pelosi-Reid agenda.
In addition to bringing Palin on the campaign trail, McCain also has departed from stances once considered a departure from the GOP: He now says he was misled by the administration on the Wall Street bailouts. He also has dropped his support for carbon-emissions legislation.
At the Tucson rally, McCain spoke out harshly against "Obamacare," saying it marks the first time in American history that a major piece of legislation has passed over the overwhelming objection of the American people. He called it "sleazy Chicago-style sausage-making."
Yet while the Tea Party moniker was evoked many times at the event, overall it is Tea Parties-or at least many of their members-driving the opposition against McCain. Said Tucson Tea Party leader, Trent Humphries, "I haven't polled our people and we're certainly not all of one mind on it, but I would guess that the majority right now support Hayworth." At a Tea Party event featuring Palin in Searchlight, Nev., attendees carried signs reading, "No more RINOs [Republicans in Name Only]-Retire McCain" and "Reid-McCain: Two sides of the same damn coin. Vote them out."
Palin may be stumping hard for her former running mate, but local political watchers doubt whether she is changing the minds of the Tea Partiers who applaud her. Jon Justice, the most popular talk radio host in southern Arizona, has interviewed McCain and Hayworth numerous times and speculates that many of the Tucson crowd were more interested in seeing Palin than supporting McCain: "I don't think she's swaying people's opinions. The very vocal Tea Party people that call my show like her because they want fresh faces in Washington. They want the old guard out."
In McCain's defense, Justice argues that he's more a victim of a long tenure in the Senate than of a questionable voting record: "I know he gets the RINO tag, but when you've been in the Senate as long as he has, you're bound to have votes that don't appeal to hard-line conservatives. The really fascinating question is if McCain wins the primary, will those who didn't support him hold their noses and vote for him anyway or just not vote. For a lot of Republicans here it's a like a repeat of 2008."
Hayworth is not without critics either. Former State Attorney General Grant Woods has called him "a caricature of the opportunistic, bombastic politician," and more than a few influential Arizona Republicans say that one-on-one meetings with Hayworth convinced them to stick with McCain, that he's more likeable than Hayworth.
But Hayworth has succeeded so far in drawing off some longtime McCain supporters. "I'm definitely thinking of voting for him," says Shelby Carl, an 84-year-old resident of Litchfield Park. In the past Carl has always voted for McCain and supported him in the 2008 presidential race. But Carl says he no longer trusts the senator to represent his interests fully in Washington. "As extreme as the Obama agenda is, I don't think moderates are what we need right now." But Hayworth doesn't hold much personal appeal for Carl, he adds: "Every time I see him, he comes off like a blowhard. He needs to learn to regulate his mouth."
Close observers like Justice argue that if Carl and Republicans like him hand the primary to Hayworth, it could cost them the seat come the general election: "I think if Hayworth wins the primary, there's a good chance a Democrat could walk away with it."
Tea Party independence is hard for candidates to depend on Trent Humphries, leader of Arizona's largest Tea Party group, the Tucson Tea Party, says it's easy to get the impression that the movement is one of lock-step, far-right ideology. As an example, he points to national coverage of the Arizona Senate race that suggests members are of one mind not only on the issues but also on the candidates. "There's a common misconception-sometimes put out there purposely I think-that the Tea Party is a one-issue movement like the Minute Man movement, but that's not remotely true. We have conversations with all the candidates, but the thing about the Tea Party movement is that it's very, very decentralized. The only points unifying Tea Partiers are cutting spending and reducing the size of government," he says. Everything else-including key conservative issues like immigration, climate change, and gay marriage-is up for grabs.
"We attract all kinds of different people that way" says Humphries, pointing out that only 60 percent of their members are registered Republicans. The rest are Independents, Libertarians, and even Democrats.
While many of Humphries' members currently support Hayworth, neither candidate should count their votes: "What the Tea Party members want to know is what are you going to do once you're in the majority again? Are you fully cognizant of the mistakes you made in the past that helped bring us to this point and are you going to do something different in the future? That's the case that both John McCain and J.D. Hayworth have to make because they both served in a Republican Congress that let us down."