Those who believe only Democratic incumbents are at risk in the 2010 election need look no further than Arizona.
Republican Sen. John McCain, the man who might have been president, suddenly appears vulnerable in his bid for a fifth term. A recent statewide poll conducted in January by the Behavior Research Center in Phoenix found McCain with a favorability rating of just 41 percent, his lowest numbers since 1994, when he was immersed in the Keating Five scandal.
Enter J.D. Hayworth, the former Republican congressman-turned-radio talk-show host and Tea Party champion. As Hayworth describes it, he was minding his own business, doing his talk show on KFYI-AM in Phoenix, when a Rasmussen Reports poll released at Thanksgiving showed him in a statistical dead heat in a hypothetical primary race against McCain.
Next thing he knew, the McCain campaign was running attack ads against him on his own radio station. “J.D. Hayworth,” the ads intone. “That’s not what Arizona wants.”
Hayworth had often criticized McCain on the air for his moderate views, and had speculated publicly about making a bid for Senate, but he wasn’t running for anything at the time. That will change Feb. 15, when Hayworth is expected to announce his candidacy for the Republican nomination for Senate.
“When that poll came out, I’m a private citizen. I hadn’t announced anything, and suddenly there are these ads on the air attacking me,” said Hayworth in an interview with HUMAN EVENTS. “I think they thought they could intimidate me into staying out the race.”
Apparently the plan backfired. “As you can see, it had the opposite effect on me,” said Hayworth.
Hayworth is the most prominent of a half-dozen Republican challengers vying to loosen McCain’s hold on the seat he’s held for 24 years. In any other year, none of them would stand a chance: McCain already has $5 million socked away in his campaign warchest, his name recognition is nearly universal,and he’s got the state and national Republican establishment in his corner.
Unfortunately for McCain, this isn’t just any year. The anti-incumbent mood sweeping the country is rapidly spilling from races featuring liberal Democrats to those with moderate Republicans. To McCain’s north in Arizona, for example, fellow incumbent Republican Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah has drawn four credible primary challengers, all of whom claim Bennett is insufficiently conservative for Utah. Bennett has a lifetime American Conservative Union rating of 83.60; McCain’s is 81.43.
The McCain campaign has responded by going into attack mode well in advance of the Aug. 24 primary. Even before the anti-Hayworth ads began, longtime McCain supporter Grant Woods, a former Arizona Attorney General, filed a complaint with the Federal Commission alleging that Hayworth was receiving free airtime to campaign for office.
Clear Channel, which owns KFYI, ultimately reached an agreement in which Hayworth agreed to quit his talk-show job at the end of January. The hypocrisy, say Hayworth supporters, is that Woods routinely blasts Hayworth on his webcast, which is sponsored by Hensley & Co., the Anheuser-Busch distributorship owned by Cindy McCain.
Hayworth is indisputably more conservative than McCain, but he’s not the perfect challenger. He lost his congressional seat in 2006 over his connection to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and although he was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing, the issue will undoubtedly be used against him during the campaign.
While conservatives disagree with McCain on any number of issues, from border security to climate change to Guantanamo Bay, he’s always received high marks for his stance against earmarks. His camp is moving to make pork-barrel spending a centerpiece of the campaign by blasting Hayworth for voting in favor of some earmarks while he was in Congress.
McCain has also enlisted the support of populist heroes Sarah Palin and Scott Brown. A Rasmussen poll released in late January found McCain holding a 53 percent to 31 percent lead over Hayworth in a primary contest.
Hayworth has swung back by pointing out that he received a higher rating during his years in Congress from Citizens Against Government Waste than did McCain. And Hayworth has a few aces up his sleeve as well, such as McCain’s vote in favor of the increasingly unpopular bank bailout.
Hayworth also holds the hard to define but impossible to ignore edge among conservative party activists. He bested McCain in a recent Maricopa County Republican Party straw poll by a whopping 68% to 10.5% margin. That may not be enough to pull off what would be the biggest upset since the Massachusetts Senate race, but in unsettled political times, nobody’s writing him off.
“This is going to be a race about G&G, greenbacks and grassroots,” said Hayworth. “Obviously the greenbacks favor John. But the grassroots favor me.”