A Republican senator runs for reelection in a mountain west state, a traditional GOP stronghold. The incumbent, in his mid-70s, seeks reelection after two decades of service in the Senate. Boasting a solidly conservative voting history, but also a more practical, bipartisan streak, the GOP incumbent hopes his overall record will carry him to another victory.
But his primary campaign is troubled. Local Republican activists are angry with Washington, Congress especially. They are angry with the senator about TARP. They are angry with the senator about his recent bipartisan gestures. They are angry with the senator about lax border security. They are just plain angry.
Their disaffection boils over on GOP primary day, delivering a shocking upset of the incumbent. When the news breaks, the GOP convention attendees rejoice, hooting and hollering, waving “Don’t Tread On Me” flags and chanting “He’s gone! He’s gone!” Later that night, the elderly senator, virtually in tears, speaks with the media and calls the current American political climate “toxic.”
Is this the recent story of Robert Bennett in Utah – or the coming fate of John McCain in Arizona?
McCain is still in danger of ending up like the Utah senator: swiftly ejected from public office, scorned by the local Republicans that had supported him for so long. But he is also politically savvy enough have already begun working to prevent Arizona from becoming like Utah.
At the moment, McCain holds an uncertain lead. His favorability ratings have plummeted across the board. In one poll, McCain leads Hayworth by 26 points. In another, McCain leads Hayworth by 6 points. In still another poll, McCain leads his opponent by 11 points. That is to say, it is difficult for McCain to know how well he is actually doing. Hayworth could surge at any time.
This is due to McCain’s grassroots troubles. In past years, GOP activists in Arizona, presented with no serious alternative, have begrudgingly supported McCain. One poll illustrates this point: Hayworth leads McCain by 8 points among the self-described conservatives polled in Arizona. McCain, on the other hand, holds a whopping 45 points advantage among moderates. But who tends to vote in Republican primaries, conservatives or moderates?
Unlike Bennett, McCain will not be caught off guard. He is more than aware of his conservative dilemma and has been working aggressively to solve it.
First, McCain has refocused on Arizona. After years of eyeing the presidency and focusing mostly on Washington, McCain is now Mr. Arizona. Most notably, McCain has been vocal about border security, publicly supporting the much-maligned Arizona immigration law. In a non-election year, McCain may have conceivably criticized the law.
Secondly, McCain has become a born again party man. After spending years cultivating an image of independence and unpredictability (a.k.a. the McCain “maverick” cliché), the Arizona senator has publicly backtracked on the label. He has also touted endorsements from movement conservatives like Grover Norquist and Tea Party celebrities like Sarah Palin and Scott Brown.
Finally, McCain is winning the money race. He has secured millions while Hayworth has struggled to inch into the seven figures.
All this so far has helped McCain maintain a lead. But come August, McCain may be the next Bennett.