The four-term Arizona senator's huge investment and hardened positions on issues like immigration have put him on a path that seems to head toward wins in next Tuesday's GOP primary and the November election.
J.D. Hayworth (center) with state Sen. Russell Pearce and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Matt York / AP
Rodney Glassman, a former vice mayor in Tucson, is among Democrats vying for their party's Senate nomination. He's ahead in primary polls. RodneyGlassman.com
When Republican Sen. John McCain recently paused for a reporter’s questions in an Arizona parking lot, he blurted out a sentiment that detractors have been using against him throughout his bitter primary battle with former GOP Rep. J.D. Hayworth.
Why, he was asked by a Politics Daily correspondent, are you spending so much money?
Because, the four-term senator replied, "I've always done whatever's necessary to win."
On that, the man who was the Republican Party's 2008 presidential nominee and introduced the nation to surprise running mate Sarah Palin would get little argument.
Though McCain's spending (so far, nearly $20 million to the more conservative Hayworth’s $2.6 million or so) and political gymnastics -- including tacking hard right on immigration, currently Arizona's top issue -- may have prompted derision among some former fans, his strategy has as much as ensured victory next Tuesday.
And in the world of primary politics, ruled by both parties' most extreme voters, at least some are asking: While perhaps dispiriting, is that so wrong?
A Win Now, And Later?
A win Tuesday would likely be followed by a victory for McCain in the fall against whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee.
"In fairness to the senator," says longtime Arizona pollster and political analyst Bruce Merrill, "one can look at it two ways. You can question his values and ethics, and say he’s pandering to the right. Or you can look at it as simply understanding the game you have to play to get elected." Merrill, of Arizona State University, was the pollster for McCain's 1982 House campaign.
In the context of getting re-elected in a state where the GOP base is inflamed by anti-illegal immigrant and Tea Party fervor, and where the party has been moving inexorably rightward, what McCain has done simply makes sense -- past positions be damned, say Arizona strategists.
Recent polls show that he has at least a 20 percentage point lead over Hayworth, a former six-term congressman who in the final days of the race has tried to paint McCain as sympathetic to providing "amnesty" to illegal immigrants.
A devastating ad McCain launched in late June, portraying Hayworth as a "huckster" for promoting "free" grant money in a 2007 infomercial, has been widely credited for increasing the distance between the two in subsequent polls.
The senator also appeared in an ad calling for the building of a fence on the state's border with Mexico. The "complete the danged fence" ad, though mocked by pundits who found it at odds with McCain's more measured immigration stances of the past, played well in the state.
"Frankly, from a crass, tactical standpoint what McCain's done has been right on," says Tempe-based pollster Mike O’Neil. He was among those shaking their heads earlier this year when the longtime senator defied history and denied in a Newsweek interview that he had ever cultivated a "maverick" image.
"I don’t think he's risking a November backlash," O’Neil says. "If he gets the nomination, I don't see him getting beat."
Though overshadowed by the high-profile McCain-Hayworth race -- among the most expensive Senate contests in the country -- there is, indeed, also a Democratic Senate primary race next Tuesday to determine who will take on the Republican in the fall.
But that contest has been so under the radar, and with a slate that O’Neil describes as "not first tier," that some Arizona politicos were hard-pressed to name all four candidates when interviewed for this story.
They are former Tucson city Vice Mayor Rodney Glassman, who has been leading in the polls and dramatically outraised his opponents; former state Rep. Cathy Eden; political organizer Randy Parraz; and investigative journalist John Dougherty.
A recent Rasmussen Reports telephone survey suggested that Glassman has the potential to defeat Hayworth in the fall but would lose to McCain by a substantial margin. No Democrat has won an Arizona Senate seat since 1988, and the Republican Party is already poised for big midterm gains.
Parraz, expressing hope that his candidacy would motivate the state's Hispanic voters, entered the race after the state's controversial anti-illegal-immigration law was signed by GOP Gov. Jan Brewer in April.
The controversial measure was intended to give law enforcement officers wider latitude to identify and deport illegal immigrants. A federal judge in July blocked some of the measure, ruling that parts of it could result in harassment and that it would undermine federal authority on immigration issues.
The U.S. Justice Department has also sued the state, claiming the law is invalid.
A recent poll shows that 70 percent of Democratic voters in Arizona oppose the new law, the mirror opposite of where Republicans stand. Parraz also helped organize opposition to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, famous for his sweeps of immigrant neighborhoods in search of those here illegally. The Justice Department has been investigating alleged civil rights violations by the well-known sheriff.
Glassman’s money edge and name recognition are expected to give him the win in Tuesday's Democratic primary, though his fall chances remain slim.
Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats in the state, 1.3 million to just over 1 million. The secretary of state's office recently announced that 26,000 new independent voters had recently registered to vote, along with 10,000 new Republicans and just 500 Democrats. Independent voters, who can vote in either primary, now number 953,501.
Much of the surge in registration has been attributed to support for the state's immigration law.
"The likelihood is that whoever gets nominated will be overwhelmed by McCain -- Republicans will hold their noses and vote for him, and his mavericky streak will pick up independents," O'Neil says.
Unless a long-shot, 1976-style scenario unfolds.
Beat up and bruised after an ugly primary in 1976, Republicans were still expected to win the Senate seat opened by GOP Sen. Paul Fannin’s retirement.
But the party was so damaged that long-shot Democratic candidate Dennis DeConcini, who had served one elected term as Pima County attorney, stunned the political world and captured 54 percent of the fall vote, defeating GOP Rep. Sam Steiger .
DeConcini, now 73, in his first term served with Arizona’s Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater and his second with the venerable conservative’s successor, McCain.
"Like Glassman, DeConcini was young and ran hard, and the Republicans were so split between Steiger and his primary opponent, Congressman John Conlan, that he won," Merrill says.
"With the McCain and Hayworth race getting more bitter by the day, one almost wonders if there's not a possibility that Glassman might have a chance to win this," he says. "Believe me, nobody thought Dennis DeConcini could win." Few Arizonans expect a similar shock this year.
Merrill suggests that Arizona’s increasingly conservative Legislature is "completely out of kilter with the state's electorate."
In addition to the immigration law, the Legislature has also contemplated measures that would bar gays from adopting children and require President Obama to produce a birth certificate if he wants to be on the presidential ballot in 2012. Legislators have approved a law barring ethnic studies in public schools.
A lifelong Republican, Merrill says he dropped the affiliation two years ago and registered as an independent.
"We live in Colorado during the summer, and I've stopped telling people I'm from Arizona," he says. Why? Because, he says, inevitably, they'll ask: "What the hell's going on down there?"
McCain, never a favorite of the state’s Republican Party, has clearly asked himself the same thing -- and seems to have figured out a formula to win. Just how the former maverick, who turns 74 on Aug. 29, will come down on the issues if re-elected to what could be his final term remains to be seen.