Arizona primary: Why McCain is set to beat the anti-incumbent backlash

Polls suggest Sen. John McCain is set to win his primary Tuesday. Some voters have been turned off by his attack ads and big spending in the race against J.D. Hayworth. But it has worked.

Ross D. Franklin/AP/file
Arizona Sen. John McCain and Gov. Jan Brewer appeared together at a news conference about the Arizona immigration law in Glendale, Ariz., July 30. Senator McCain and Governor Brewer have campaigned together.

Arizona’s primary election Tuesday will bring to an end the aggressive Republican race for the US Senate – a race that at one point threatened to topple four-time Senator and 2008 presidential nominee John McCain.

But with Senator McCain now leading challenger J.D. Hayworth by 20 percentage points in some polls, both Arizona and the nation are turning their eyes toward a potential crackerjack governor’s race.

If all goes as expected, the race would pit the state’s foremost backer of its controversial anti-illegal immigration law – the Republican governor who signed it – against the law’s loudest critic – the Democratic attorney general who opposes it.

Gov. Jan Brewer’s approval ratings have soared since she signed in April the immigration law that the Obama administration has challenged in court. Rather than have chief critic and Attorney General Terry Goddard defend the law in court, Governor Brewer took him off the case.

This primary, Brewer has campaigned with McCain. She is facing and is expected to prevail against Matt Jette, a self-described moderate. Mr. Goddard is running unopposed.

McCain vs. Hayworth

Both McCain and Mr. Hayworth support the law intended to clamp down on illegal immigration – which Arizonans heavily favor, according to polls. But Hayworth – a former US representative – maintains that McCain, if reelected, would seek passage of comprehensive immigration reform that presumably would include a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants.

The Republican Senate primary has eclipsed the Democratic race, which has four candidates: John Dougherty, Cathy Eden, Rodney Glassman and Randy Parraz.

Despite the pervasive anti-incumbent sentiment nationwide, McCain is largely favored to go on to the general election and beat the Democratic nominee in November.

“No one is strong enough to unseat him,” says William Dixon, a political science professor at the University of Arizona.

The one person who could have been a serious contender was Janet Napolitano – had she finished her term as governor, the professor says. Ms. Napolitano left Arizona to become the secretary of Homeland Security in January 2009. Then-secretary of State Brewer was appointed governor.

The acrimonious campaign between Hayworth, who ran as a self-described candidate of the “tea party” movement, and McCain has turned off some voters, including Dick Kolt, a lifelong Republican.

He knows his lesser-known candidate is a long shot but he threw his support anyway behind Jim Deakin, who is running third in the polls.

“He would not be encumbered by any of the back scratch that’s involved in politics; it’s all about money,” he says, alluding to the roughly $20 million that McCain spent on a barrage of political ads during the campaign.

Independents ascendant

Independent Kim Rosado does not yet know how she will vote. She is still considering how the candidates stand on issues such as education, border safety, and illegal immigration. She knows that McCain has pushed for tighter border controls but she’s not convinced that would be an effective solution.

“I just know what they’re doing now is not working,” she says.

Independents such as Ms. Rosado are becoming an increasingly important force in the Arizona electorate. New state figures show that nearly 26,000 new independent and unaffiliated voters recently registered to vote, bringing the total to 953,500.

Independents can vote in either primary.

The state has 1.1 million registered Republicans, compared with about 1 million Democrats, according to the secretary of state’s office. In the most recent statistics, Arizona also gained 10,000 Republicans and lost 500 Democrats.

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