Why John McCain isn't in more trouble for Arizona Senate primary

Sen. John McCain's record as an immigration reformer doesn't seem to match a state that's taking a hardline stance on illegal immigration. But the senator is managing to fend off a challenge from his right ahead of Tuesday's GOP Senate primary in Arizona.

Matt York/AP
US Sen. John McCain, R-AZ., and his wife, Cindy, watch the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Cincinnati Reds during the third inning of a baseball game in Phoenix Thursday.

The whispers in the spring were that Sen. John McCain, the Republican Party's presidential candidate in 2008, was vulnerable to an upset from the right when he sought reelection to the Senate this year. Now, in the home stretch toward Arizona’s primary election on Tuesday, such talk has largely faded.

Senator McCain commands a solid lead in polls over former US Rep. J.D. Hayworth, who defines himself as a candidate of the "tea party" movement, and Jim Deakin, a political newcomer who is in third place.

In state where a crackdown on illegal immigration is widely backed by voters, McCain's record of working with Democrats to redesign US immigration policy might not go down easy. It is just the kind of stance that the energetic tea party activists here derided. Moreover, he is a 24-year incumbent working to preserve his seat amid widespread anti-incumbent sentiment.

Given Mr. Hayworth’s all-out challenge, McCain's response has been to shift to the right, including on immigration issues. The senator endorsed the state's controversial new immigration law that the Obama administration has challenged in court, and lately he has pushed mainly for tighter border controls, forgoing his role as a unifying force between Democrats and Republicans seeking bipartisan immigration reforms to legalize illegal immigrants. “Complete the danged wall,” McCain says in one of his campaign ads as he strolls next to the metal barrier between the US and Mexico.

IN PICTURES: SB1070: Arizona immigration law protests

By moving away from some of the more independent views that earned him admirers and the "maverick" label but that angered far-right Republicans here, McCain has strengthened his standing with the mainstream Republican base, says William Dixon, a political scientist at the University of Arizona. “Some of those conservative Republicans who were upset with him years ago now are saying he’s taking the right positions.”

Hayworth is not giving up the race just yet, though. At a weekend tea party rally near the border, McCain's rival called the former presidential candidate a “shape-shifter” who can’t be trusted.

“We will carry the day because in the final analysis voters want to have a consistent United States senator who is conservative, who means what he says and says what he means,” says the one-time talk radio host.

Like Hayworth, there are others who don't buy the notion that McCain has given up on enacting comprehensive immigration reform, which includes a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants. For instance, Americans for Legal Immigration political action committee (ALIPAC) announced Thursday it’s mobilizing a network of volunteers to dial up voters before the primary and “warn them that John McCain’s amnesty plans will destroy America’s borders and probably the nation.”

It probably helps McCain that Arizona's Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, who is riding a wave of popularity for her tough stance on illegal immigration, has been campaigning alongside him. But there's also another big factor in McCain's favor: money. His campaign has spent about $20 million, compared with Hayworth’s roughly $2.5 million.

“Money isn’t everything but it’s a lot,” says Tim Hagle, a political scientist at the University of Iowa. “Hayworth can point out weaknesses in McCain’s record, but when you’ve got that much of a war chest behind you, the incumbent in this case can spend a lot of money countering those ads. And then the challenger really doesn’t have that ability to come back.”

Throughout a fierce campaign, Hayworth has attacked what he says are inconsistencies in McCain’s record, and the senator has fought back by linking his opponent to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and pounding on Hayworth for his role in an infomercial that pitched free money in government grants after he was voted out of office in 2006.

The money McCain has poured into the campaign makes it difficult for Hayworth to compete, say supporters like Republican state Sen. Russell Pearce, who has led Arizona’s efforts to clamp down on illegal immigration.

“I’m disappointed that he’s not in the lead,” Mr. Pearce says of Hayworth. “He’s still in striking distance, and all we can do is hope and pray…. We need change, and you can’t have change until you change Washington, D.C.

The energetic tea party crowd taking in Hayworth’s message Aug. 15 at a private ranch in Hereford, Ariz. – within sight of the border wall – made it clear they stand behind him.

“He is the most conservative candidate,” says Anna Weddle, a former McCain supporter who traveled more than 200 miles from Phoenix to see Hayworth. “McCain says he is conservative, but he isn’t.”

Still, Hayworth's attempt to capitalize on any lingering disenchantment with McCain just won't be enough to persuade a significant number of primary voters, predicts Professor Hagle.

“Despite his maverick reputation on some issues, McCain in general is still a fairly conservative guy,” he says. “So a lot of folks in the Republican Party that like Hayworth are still not willing to abandon McCain. That’s the difficulty Hayworth faces.”

That seemed to be the case at a McCain campaign event Wednesday in Green Valley south of Tucson, where the senator spoke to a group of blue-collar workers. The senator sounded as if he had already won a fifth term when he told his audience that if lawmakers in Washington act quickly on “Obamacare,” President Obama’s health care reform, “We could cancel out a lot of it.”

Worker Todd Scoggin liked what he heard from McCain, especially his views on illegal immigration and his call to put National Guard troops on the border.

“I agree with his comments that yes, we are all immigrants from one time or another, but let’s do it legally.”

IN PICTURES: SB1070: Arizona immigration law protests

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