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.