Just as the presidential nomination process begins in earnest, Senator John McCain has suffered a stinging defeat in his home state. For the Republican media darling declared recently by Chris Matthews to be the one candidate who “deserves the presidency,” it was an unlikely loss, and so far it has gone unheralded by the national press corps that McCain once half-jokingly called “my base.” This defeat was the handiwork of his presumed actual political base–a ragtag band of local conservative activists led by a 65-year-old retired IBM middle manager named Rob Haney.
Who is Rob Haney? He is the Republican state committeeman in Arizona’s District 11, McCain’s home district. In the past, Haney and his fellow committee members would meet from time to time to review their annual budget, vote on bylaws and pass resolutions. If anyone represents Arizona’s Republican Party, advancing the causes of faith, family and freedom, it is the folks from District 11. Yet their importance, let alone their existence, seemed to matter little to their state’s famous and ambitious senior senator.
All that changed when Haney organized a revolt that hardly needed encouragement. “People would be calling in to [state committee] headquarters every week, absolutely enraged, threatening to leave the party because of some comments McCain made,” Haney told me. “The guy has no core, his only principle is winning the presidency. He likes to call his campaign the ‘straight talk express.’ Well, down here we call it the ‘forked tongue express.'”
Rank-and-file Republicans are disgruntled about McCain’s support for campaign finance reform and gun control and his opposition to a federal ban on gay marriage. Conservative anger reached a boiling point in 2004 when McCain led the opposition to Prop 200, a state ballot measure restricting public services for undocumented immigrants. In the summer of 2005, months after Prop 200 succeeded with support from nearly 70 percent of GOP voters, Haney introduced a resolution in District 11 to censure McCain for “dereliction of his duties and responsibilities as a representative of the citizens of Arizona.” After the resolution coasted through the district, it was introduced before the GOP committee of Maricopa County, Arizona’s largest, encompassing Phoenix and Scottsdale (once home to Barry Goldwater).
At the time, McCain and his handlers were working to burnish his conservative credentials to win over wary Republican primary voters. The effort began with McCain’s May 2006 graduation speech at Liberty University, a school founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, whom McCain had dubbed an “agent of intolerance” during his rancorous 2000 run for the presidency. His makeover continues on February 23, when he is scheduled to speak before the Discovery Institute, the right-wing think tank that has attempted to introduce into public school biology classes the teaching of Intelligent Design.
Although Arizona is somewhat off the national radar, Haney’s resolution posed a threat to the McCain makeover. Apparently alarmed, the senator dispatched his chief of staff to the Maricopa County Republicans’ meeting to warn against the resolution. At McCain’s behest, Arizona’s other GOP senator, Jon Kyl, sent his own chief of staff as well. But Haney’s resolution passed by a nearly unanimous vote. “No one in the party structure would dare say anything about McCain and the grassroots was enraged, so I voiced their concerns,” Haney said. “And McCain and the party establishment came down on me hard. They said, ‘You’re going to destroy his chances in the presidential campaign.'”
Not content to let the purely symbolic resolution stand, McCain recruited a slate of candidates to oust Haney and his allies in last November’s state committee elections. McCain supporters formed a political action committee, Grassroots Arizona PAC, to bankroll this effort. Forty percent of Grassroots Arizona’s funds were provided by two Democratic donors from San Francisco apparently enraptured with McCain and his “maverick” image, Gregory and Lisa Wendt, which added fuel to the flames of Haney’s revolt. McCain’s slate was formidable, including Fife Symington, a former Arizona governor coaxed out of retirement to come to the rescue of his old friend. So worried was McCain about being rebuked by his own party that he threw his own hat into the race, announcing that he would run for state committeeman.
When the votes were counted, McCain and his entire slate were resoundingly defeated. Despite endorsements from virtually every Republican member of Arizona’s Congressional delegation, Symington, who had never lost a race in his life, was crushed–as was McCain. Adding insult to injury, in January another key McCain ally, Republican political consultant Lisa James, was defeated for state GOP committee chair by Randy Pullen, a prominent McCain critic and anti-immigrant activist who headed the campaign for Prop 200. James’s defeat could complicate McCain’s presidential ground game because she was to have used her position at the top of Arizona’s Republican apparatus to secure the state’s primary for McCain.
McCain is still likely to win his home state’s primary. But according to Haney, the senator’s failed attempt to oust his critics has galvanized his conservative opponents. “If McCain had just been quiet about me passing those resolutions,” Haney said, “the whole issue would have died. I mean, it is unheard of for anyone to care so much about district committeemen.”
McCain’s botched revenge has solidified his reputation in Arizona’s Republican circles as a divisive, untrustworthy and even dangerous figure. Haney hopes the general public meets this side of McCain before his penchant for angry reprisals is invested with the powers of the presidency. “This just shows that McCain is mentally unstable and out of control and vindictive,” Haney told me. “If he is determined to go through that much trouble to attack a district committee chairman, what does that say about his ability to handle real political problems?”