John McCain's Last Stand
Rob Haney's got a big problem. After a stint in the Air Force and a thirty-year career with IBM, Haney is now a full-time political activist. And he can't decide who he viscerally hates and fears more: the hierarchy of the Catholic Church or Senator John McCain.
It's a toughie for him. This is the sort of middle-of-the-night quandary that might bedevil a liberal secular humanist. Or some sort of atheist progressive Democrat. Haney, however, is the elected chair of the Republican Party of Maricopa County, which includes Arizona's capital, the fifth-biggest city in the United States. And whatever one thinks of John McCain, spending a half-hour or so with Haney boldly underlines the challenges the former GOP presidential candidate is facing in his August 24 primary battle against ultraconservative challenger and former Congressman J.D. Hayworth.
McCain hasn't had a serious primary challenger since his maiden Congressional race, in 1982, and he's never had a serious Democratic rival. Even in his earlier, more "maverick" incarnation, being out of sync with the state's hardline GOP activist base, and even much of its midlevel officialdom, carried little liability. McCain was the only game in town.
But not this time around. The volatile and frankly extremist mood of the Arizona Tea Party, the inflammatory immigration issue and the sour disposition of voters in general—all exploited by and embodied in Hayworth—have unexpectedly landed McCain in the fight of his political life. Indeed, he has lurched so aggressively to the right to counter Hayworth and appease voters like Haney that hard-right blogger Michelle Malkin says she has had to take Dramamine to avoid motion sickness watching McCain. Not that his movement has bought him much affection from the frayed right edge of Arizona politics.
"One night in the '90s I went to Mass and the priest prayed for forgiveness for Bill Clinton," Haney, an ardent Hayworth supporter, says with obvious disgust. "That was it for me. The US Conference of [Catholic] Bishops, we believe, is a socialist organization with a socialist agenda."
"John McCain is right in bed with them," he continues while munching a bagel. "He says, 'Character matters.' Get me a barf bag! John McCain is the spearhead of socialism in America." The proof? Haney's ready with a list of indictments: "Campaign finance reform. McCain took away our freedom of speech. He closed down gun shows with the help of far-left extremist George Soros. He led the closing of Guantánamo. He's supported legislation that allows our country to be invaded by illegals. And those illegals all look to the Democrats because they promise everybody money through the public trough. That leads to a socialist country and destroys capitalism. We're already there. Thank you, Senator McCain."
It's pretty hot on the cafe patio where we've been talking, but this sort of delusional politics has little to do with the latest heat wave. It's been ingrained on the fringes of Arizona Republican politics for the past thirty years. Since the early 1980s, the extreme nativist right has made a concerted effort to capture the machinery of the state's GOP, often putting the party and some of its more temperate elected officials (McCain, Representative Jeff Flake and former Representative Jim Kolbe) in two different worlds. Now that activist fringe is actively trying to ditch McCain.
"I dealt with these folks as AG," says Grant Woods, a moderate Republican and former state attorney general. "I'd go to national conferences and be seen as center-right. Then I'd come back home and be seen as Mao Zedong." (Woods spoke with me as a private citizen; shortly after our talk he was brought into the McCain campaign as a senior adviser.) "Haney's a nut. He and his whole crowd. Most people involved in Arizona Republican politics are nice and well-meaning, but it's those extremists who have the time to go to all the meetings and pretty much dominate the party machinery. These are the same folks who wanted to take Barry Goldwater's name off the GOP headquarters because they thought he was too liberal."
There's such bad blood between McCain and the official Arizona GOP that in mid-May, McCain spun off part of his campaign team to form a separate Republican Victory Committee. This would allow the RNC and other national GOP rainmakers to funnel money directly to his campaign without having to pass through the unreliable channels of the state party, whose chair, Randy Pullen, is another McCain foe and champion of the pitchfork brigades.
Meanwhile, all those extremists, as Woods calls them, who've burrowed into the nooks and crannies of Republican precinct and county committees have found a candidate they like—no, love—this year. They have zealously rallied around the blustering, six-foot-five figure of 51-year-old Hayworth, who, after his 2006 re-election defeat and until he declared his candidacy, spent his time as a Limbaughish talk-radio bloviator (on his show Hayworth called Woods an "ambulance chaser" and "lower than some forms of bacterial algae"). He's galvanized the Tea Partyers, the Minutemen, the birthers, the cranky libertarians and just about everyone feeling aggrieved in a state battered by economic catastrophe. Phoenix is ground zero for the national housing crisis, and 51 percent of the state's home mortgages are underwater. With the state's real unemployment rate, counting the underemployed and those who have stopped looking for work, around 17 percent, it should come as little surprise that anti-immigrant scapegoating has come back into fashion. And Hayworth has been riding Arizona's infamous new immigration law, SB 1070—which requires law enforcement authorities to check the papers of anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally and makes failure to carry immigration documents a crime—as his own political Seabiscuit.
Nevertheless, Hayworth's chances of winning are fading quickly, thanks mostly to his comical ineptitude. In the meantime, though, his campaign has not only drawn national attention but has also managed to put McCain on the defensive and turn what should have been a cakewalk for the 73-year-old incumbent into a messy slog.
Moderate Arizona Republicans (a definite minority), spooked by McCain's radical repositioning, are finding themselves in the same fix as progressive Democrats disillusioned with Barack Obama—with nowhere to go except to support the incumbent. "First there was a maverick, then there was no maverick—and now, there's really no maverick," says one grumpy Republican consultant, paraphrasing the old '60s standard by Donovan. "It's either McCain or the deluge."
No question that the McCain-Hayworth race energized all factions of the GOP by presenting them, and anyone else paying attention, with a bare-knuckled, down-and-dirty mud match. It splattered onto the screen during the two back-to-back debates in mid-July, when the (statistically tiny) audience saw two candidates openly sneering at each other. McCain fired the first shot, attacking Hayworth for an embarrassing recent revelation that he had fronted as TV pitchman for an infomercial promising anyone naïve enough to pay that they could get free funding—from a federal government that Hayworth supposedly despises. "J.D. Hayworth was a lobbyist," said McCain. "He was in late-night infomercials.... My God, man, didn't you know that this was a group that was taking people's money to say it could give them free money?... No one can say they're a conservative when they engage in that kind of activity."
Hayworth, who had earlier called his infomercial appearance a mistake but qualified it by saying "caveat emptor," pushed back, accusing McCain of gutter politics. It "really is unbecoming of you, John," Hayworth responded. "You're not a statesman anymore—you're a political shape-shifter." Which is softer language than Hayworth had used before entering the campaign, when as talk-show host he had branded McCain "Weenie of the Week."
If nothing else, the challenge lit a bonfire under McCain, who had often been accused in earlier contests of being too aloof from Arizona's concerns. "Not this time. What you're seeing now is his total military psyche," says one of McCain's former regional presidential campaign managers. "It's all-out war. He set out not only to defeat Hayworth but to annihilate him." Adds Phoenix-based Democratic consultant Mario Diaz, "McCain started carpet-bombing Hayworth from the first day."