Club for Growth: John McCain may face conservative primary challenger

Sen. John McCain is up for reelection in 2016. The new president of the conservative Club for Growth, David McIntosh, told a Monitor breakfast Tuesday the club will 'watch carefully' for primary potential. 

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor.
David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth, speaks Tuesday at a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters in Washington, DC.

John McCain might want to watch his back.

The Republican senator from Arizona  says he’s leaning toward running for reelection next year. And if he does, the Club for Growth is on the case. The club is famous for backing successful conservative primary challengers to more-moderate Republicans, such as Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana in 2012.

Two conservative House Republicans are eyeing a possible challenge to Senator McCain, and the club’s new president sounds interested.  

“We will watch that carefully,” David McIntosh, the new president of the Club for Growth, told reporters Tuesday at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. “We’ll look at John’s record and his score.”

The club scores all members of the Senate on how conservative they are, and will release those scores in “a few weeks,” says Mr. McIntosh, a former GOP House member from Indiana. In addition, the club will look to see if a credible challenger emerges. Arizona Republican Reps. Matt Salmon and David Schweikert have both expressed interest.

“They’re people the club has supported and thinks well of in Congress,” McIntosh says.

Then, he says, the club will do its research, including polling, and determine whether there’s  “a path to victory and is the money well spent.”

“Some institutions only engage in things they’re 90 percent sure will lead to victory,” McIntosh says. “The club is willing to take greater risk.”

Going after McCain would be one of the club’s biggest conquests since its founding in 1999. McCain was the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 2008, and is now chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. McCain, a former POW in Vietnam, was first elected to the Senate in 1986.

In McCain’s last reelection race, in 2010, he beat former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R) of Arizona easily in the primary, then sailed to reelection. But many movement conservatives see McCain as too moderate, and too willing to compromise with Democrats. His scores from the American Conservative Union have bounced around over the years. In 2010, he scored a perfect 100 percent, but in 2013, dropped to 52 percent. His lifetime score is 82 percent.

The risk in taking out McCain in a primary is that the Republicans nominate someone who blows up in the general election, handing an otherwise safe Republican seat to a Democrat. That’s what happened in the case of Senator Lugar in 2012, and in the 2010 cycle with Nevada and Delaware.

The club, too, counts many successes over the years, including the elections of Sens. Pat Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania and Marco Rubio of Florida. Its primary focus is to elect strong supporters of free-market principles, and since the rise of the tea party in 2009, has often been aligned with that movement.

Another Republican the club is looking at is Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk. Illinois is a blue state, and Senator Kirk is a top target for Democrats seeking to retake control of the Senate. Kirk’s moderate stance makes him a potential target for the Club for Growth. But the club will have to look at his score, look at his record and the record of a possible opponent, then decide whether it makes sense to back a primary challenger, McIntosh says.  

The club “may have a philosophical favorite, but they also take into consideration, are we going to use the members’ resources well?” McIntosh says. “Is it a race that makes sense to invest in.”

Though the club is known for its Republican primary challenges, it also backs candidates in the general election. In November, the club announced that it is backing Senators Toomey and Rubio, as well as Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, and Tim Scott of South Carolina.

Of those, Senators Johnson and Toomey “are likely to be difficult seats to defend,” McIntosh says, as they represent Democratic-leaning states. “And the club is very committed to helping them get reelected."

Two others are exploring presidential bids – Senators Paul and Rubio. The Kentucky GOP is looking to change its presidential primary into a caucus, so Paul can run for both president and Senate at the same time. Rubio has said he will not run for reelection to the Senate if he runs for president. 

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