John McCain’s Last Stand

John McCain’s Last Stand

He’ll probably fend off J.D. Hayworth, but in order to win he’s lost most of his principles.


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."

A full six months before the primary, McCain used his outsize war chest to go on the air and web with a barrage of attack ads, ripping away at Hayworth as a fraud and, more recently, a "huckster." And McCain started spending more time in Arizona. "The state is usually little more than a pit stop for McCain," says Diaz. This is a point conceded by several former members of the senator’s inner circle. "John never overcame the original sin of being seen as a carpetbagger, as someone who didn’t pay much attention to Arizona," says a former legal adviser (McCain didn’t settle in the state until 1981, when he was 45). The former regional campaign manager concurs: "He’s a bigger-than-life national figure. Which means he is often seen as bigger than Arizona." Members of his former inner circle admit that when it comes to the nitty-gritty side of state politics, McCain has been chronically MIA. Mixing it up with grumbling hoi polloi was never his strong suit.

On the advice of some of these presumably more moderate former advisers, in March McCain brought in Sarah Palin to campaign for him, and thousands came to two weekend rallies—although many said they were there to see Sarah Barracuda rather than the senator, who stood humbly behind Palin, his hands crossed, as she cranked up the masses.

Vastly outspent, Hayworth relentlessly fired back, striking at McCain’s every possible vulnerability (at one point in the spring, Hayworth narrowed the race to a five- or six-point gap, but McCain subsequently opened up what is probably an insurmountable fifteen- to twenty-point lead). Casting himself as the "consistent conservative," Hayworth has hammered away at McCain’s earlier support for "amnesty"—his co-sponsoring of the 2006 McCain-Kennedy comprehensive immigration bill. A watered-down version failed a year later in the Senate, but at the time it was considered the most liberal stripe of reform legislation with a realistic chance of being passed.

Former Attorney General Woods brushed off the effectiveness of the anti-immigration argument. "With everything else going on, I don’t think this is a front-burner issue," he said. But that was in an interview conducted before the April approval of SB 1070. Most other analysts reject Woods’s take. While the immigration issue has waxed and waned in Arizona politics and the electorate is often far more nuanced and divided on the issue than superficial media reports suggest, this season the seal-the-border-and-round-’em-up sentiment is once again red-hot. Go to any Hayworth event or talk to any Hayworth supporter, and within sixty seconds you’re bound to hear of McCain’s traitorous support for "amnesty." This, despite McCain’s shameless efforts to close all space between himself and Hayworth by renouncing or denying all his former positions on immigration and making himself almost indistinguishable from the Minutemen when it comes to border politics.

While some scattered Republican centrists are horrified by McCain’s attempt to outflank Hayworth on the right, many more, like Woods, express no fear. They say in private that this is only a campaign tactic, and that once Hayworth is defeated the more independent John McCain will somehow re-emerge. "Come on, he’s not going to be brainwashed by Sarah Palin," says the former regional campaign manager. "This is McCain’s final campaign. He already has the license to be a maverick, and right now he is not running for president and never will again. I just don’t see him being weighed down by any of this, and when this race is over he will drift back."

That’s a bit difficult to grasp, mostly because McCain would have to be a world-class acrobat to undo the pretzel-like positions he has assumed in the past year. He told Newsweek, "I never considered myself a maverick," although he wrote a book subtitled The Education of an American Maverick. Within hours of passage of national healthcare reform, McCain sent out a "repeal this bill" appeal to his supporters, turning his back on earlier attempts to be a moderate, across-the-aisle broker. He has reversed his support for cap-and-trade and other climate change legislation. He is opposing confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. He has flipped on gays in the military (in 2006 he said he was ready to scrap "don’t ask, don’t tell" as soon as the military brass were ready, but earlier this year, when they said they were, he said he was "disappointed" and that this was not the time). He claims he was "misled" into supporting the initial bank bailout, for which he briefly suspended his presidential campaign to help ram it through the Senate.

But McCain’s most dramatic backtrack has been on what was once his signature issue: comprehensive immigration reform. He’s put out TV ads urging accelerated construction of the border wall, and he says the 1,200 National Guard troops ordered to the border by Obama are way too few. In early July he told Tucson talk-radio for the first time that he favors deporting the undocumented even though he once supported a legalization path for those here without authorization. "No amnesty," he said, adopting the language of his anti-immigrant opponents. "Many of them need to be sent back." And this summer he pledged a $5,000 contribution to a legal fund to defend Arizona law enforcement against challenges to SB 1070. He’s appeared in TV commercials with Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, one of the leaders of the campaign to defend Arizona cops against lawsuits stemming from the bill and a regular voice on some of the more extremist, conspiracy-ridden AM gabfests.

None of these genuflections to the fringe seemed to soothe the sensibilities of 200 supporters of the Mesa Red Mountain Tea Party, who on a recent Thursday night overflowed a suburban Phoenix private school gym to host Hayworth. With no TV cameras present, there were none of the theatrics often associated with Tea Party events—nobody in a tricorn hat or holding a replica musket. Just a lily-white crowd of what appeared to be downwardly mobile, angry, lower-middle-class folks. A few introductory speakers sounded a Paul Revere–like alarm that the country was crumbling; that we were "under invasion"; that majority rule was "like two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for lunch"; that the Fourteenth, the Seventeenth and a couple of other amendments had to be repealed; and that the border must be blockaded—by any means necessary.

When Hayworth finally took the podium, he launched into a rambling and rather dull speech explaining why he was running, at one point comparing his 2006 Congressional loss to Churchill’s defeat after World War II. He didn’t really ignite the crowd until he returned to the hot-button issue of the border. "Article 4, Section 4 of the Constitution guarantees a republican form of government that shall protect each against foreign invasion," he thundered. "It’s unconscionable that nearly a decade after 9/11, border security is still a national security issue and that there has already been an invasion." Riding a standing ovation, Hayworth ripped into McCain’s support for "amnesty," and for good measure he threw a jab at the senator for formerly opposing torture, saying, "McCain’s rules are, for terrorists, like teaching to the test." Another room-rattling ovation.

Hayworth certainly locked up the support of the Mesa Red Mountain Tea Party. But over the past few months he has declined from being a serious challenger to little more than a punching bag, limping through the final month of the campaign. Indeed, it speaks volumes about the estrangement between McCain and the Arizona base of his party that Hayworth could ever, even briefly, have been considered more than marginal amusement. In what political universe does a defeated former Congressman seriously challenge a long-incumbent senator and former presidential candidate? Answer: one in which the incumbent, though barely tolerated by much of the party base, never had to face a serious challenge and could be automatically re-elected on a strictly partisan basis. McCain was the Republican guy, period, so he never really had to put out much effort to win.

Initially, Hayworth deftly capitalized on the insurgent impulse of the right, but time was his enemy. The longer the campaign went on, the more time he had to make a fool of himself. In 2006 he wrote a book, Whatever It Takes, proposing a moratorium even on legal immigration from Mexico. The book flopped, and later that year he was tossed from the House by a relatively low-profile Democratic underdog. McCain, for once, was being straight when one of his web videos branded Hayworth one of the "dumbest" ever to have served in Congress; he was once voted the second-biggest "windbag" in Congress by The Washingtonian magazine. He took some $69,000 in contributions from convicted felon Jack Abramoff and his clients. (Hayworth claimed at the Tea Party meeting that criticism of his link to Abramoff was racist, because many of the Abramoff clients who donated to him were from Indian tribes.) During his campaign against McCain, Hayworth said that gay marriage could lead to bestiality and "you could marry your horse." In one speech he claimed the United States never declared war on Germany during World War II. One of his early endorsers, former Minuteman leader Chris Simcox, is currently on the lam, evading a restraining order for domestic violence. Hayworth’s most vocal booster and constant sidekick, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (the self-declared "meanest sheriff in America"), is under federal scrutiny for possible abuse of authority. And the unearthing of the 2007 video of Hayworth fronting the con-job infomercial just about knocked him to the mat.

If McCain had stuck to some of his more centrist positions, he probably would still have been able to beat Hayworth. "In tough economic times, bestiality can’t be the heart of your platform," gloats one top McCain campaigner. True enough. But what sort of victory will McCain garner in what, most likely, is his last stand? Odds are he will retain his seat against whoever emerges from a weak and divided Democratic field. The political cost, however, will be incalculable. McCain blew through much of his moral capital as an independent thinker in his bitterly partisan 2008 campaign. Now he has become the mirror image of those on the GOP’s far right who smeared him in the 2000 South Carolina presidential primary. On hardly a single issue of significance can daylight be found between McCain and a challenger always known as a buffoon. The only difference is that McCain is a much more skilled politician and no doubt a lot smarter than J.D. Hayworth. Once the latter is defeated, the only serious challenge McCain will face is grappling with the ghost of his past.

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