Underdog Hayworth says he'll rap McCain on illegal immigration

J.D. Hayworth, who is contesting Sen. John McCain in the GOP primary, plans to make border security and illegal immigration key campaign themes – and to tap 'energy' of resurgent conservatives.

Joshua Lott/Reuters
Radio personality and former US Congressman JD Hayworth (R-AZ) announces his bid for U.S. Senator during a news conference in Phoenix, Arizona.

In explaining his decision to try to end John McCain's 24-year career in the US Senate, J.D. Hayworth, Mr. McCain's opponent and a fellow Republican, borrows an idea from an unlikely source: Barack Obama.

"This is another year of change, but this time it’ll be a year of conservative change,” says Mr. Hayworth, who on Monday announced he would take on Senator McCain in Arizona's GOP primary in August. “The energy behind self-identified conservatives is really high, and that’ll make the difference.”

In a phone interview with the Monitor on Monday, Hayworth said he hopes his campaign will tap into the surge in conservative activism, as measured by "tea party" activists and the popularity of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R). He will be appealing to conservatives in the state who fault McCain for crossing the political aisle too often, collaborating with Democrats like Sens. Edward Kennedy and Russ Feingold on issues such as immigration reform and campaign finance reform.

Hayworth is a six-term member of the US House who, after a defeat in the 2006 general election, became a conservative talk-show host in Phoenix. The job allowed him a platform for his views and raised his public profile, which he says resulted in a flood of requests late last year to reenter politics and challenge McCain in the Republican primary.

Arizona voters can expect illegal immigration to be a major theme of Hayworth's campaign, especially the issue of "amnesty." McCain has advocated allowing special visas for undocumented workers and other measures that prevent immediate deportation, and he campaigned against Arizona's Proposition 200, which requires proof of citizenship to receive public benefits in the state. When voters approved it in 2004, some saw that as evidence that McCain was out of touch with the electorate.

Hayworth had proposed legislation in the House to deal with illegal immigration and, in 2006, wrote a book about the issue, but he found himself out of step with President Bush and other members of his party who sought a more measured approach. Hayworth says he takes a “broken window” position toward the issue, meaning, “when you start enforcing the law, people respond to that action.” He faults Presidents Bush and Obama for not putting border security at the top of their priority lists.

“If [Obama] really wanted a grand public works project, building and securing the border and ports of entry makes common sense," he says. "It’s unconscionable [that] we spent almost a decade after 9/11 and have failed to protect our border.”

Hayworth has the endorsement of Chris Simcox, a cofounder of the Minutemen, a leading advocacy group for border protection. Mr. Simcox himself had planned to challenge McCain, but he dropped his own campaign on Monday and threw his support to Hayworth. Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan is also supporting Hayworth.

One issue McCain has already raised is Hayworth’s connection, while a member of Congress, to disgraced Washington insider Jack Abramoff, sent to prison for defrauding the Indian tribes he represented as a lobbyist. Hayworth’s political action committee received $101,620 in donations from Mr. Abramoff between 1999 and 2005, a time when Hayworth was cochairman of the Native American Caucus in Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan political research group.

The US Justice Department investigated Hayworth in 2006 regarding Abramoff but never filed charges. Today, Hayworth says he is vindicated by the outcome. If McCain continues to bring up the incident during the campaign, he warned during the interview, he will bring up Charles Keating, a convicted banker and McCain friend. McCain was accused of trying to sway federal regulators who were investigating Mr. Keating in the 1980s.

The McCain campaign "may think they’re scorching the earth, but it would be wise to keep on the issues rather than the litany of false accusations,” Hayworth says.

There is a bit of a disconnect in Hayworth’s desire to appeal to upset conservatives: Many of the stars of the far right, such as Ms. Palin and newly elected Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, say they will campaign for McCain. Palin’s decision is an “impulse of gratitude, politically,” says Hayworth, who adds that there is a growing Facebook group of voters who say they admire Palin but are supporting his campaign.

He credits Palin for saying in her recent book that primaries are the sign of a political party’s vitality. Their common interest, he says, is to appeal to “newly awakened Americans” who are dismayed by the “onslaught of the left.”

“People are pulling back on the reins and saying, ‘We have to take a big right turn,’ ” he says.


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