Politics & Policy

Sheriff McCain

Adapted from the Aug. 30, 2010, issue of NR.

As his fellow incumbents drown in a tea-party wave, Sen. John McCain somehow remains afloat. On Tuesday, McCain squared off against J. D. Hayworth, a former congressman, in Arizona’s GOP Senate primary; yet Hayworth, a border hawk and talk-radio star, arrived defanged. After lurching hard, and awkwardly, to the right for months, McCain won easily. McCain of course credits his survival to pluck. But luck, too, played a part, as did his boatload of cash. Unlike many of his colleagues, who have faced political neophytes this season, McCain drew a foe with twelve years of experience in the House — a short stint compared with McCain’s nonstop congressional tenure since 1983, but more than enough of a record for opposition researchers to mine. McCain, with ease, punched early: Hayworth was a well-known pork-barrel spender and an acquaintance of Jack Abramoff, the disgraced lobbyist. Initially, “Hayworth tried to portray himself as an outsider, as some sort of fiscal conservative,” McCain told me before the primary. “We knew that we had to define him — I freely admit that.”

#ad#“We did not want to make the mistakes of Charlie Crist and Bob Bennett and become another statistic,” adds Brian Rogers, McCain’s communications director, referring to a pair of establishment candidates who found themselves in trouble. “Look at what happened to Crist,” he says. In Florida’s GOP Senate primary race, Governor Crist ignored Marco Rubio, his upstart opponent, “for months, enabling him to shape the narrative.” With Hayworth, “we simply could not let that happen. Bold colors were necessary.”

But the senator’s own baggage weighed heavily on him. On immigration, McCain was understandably viewed with suspicion. Along with Ted Kennedy, he had co-sponsored, in 2007, a “comprehensive reform” bill that many critics saw as a veiled move toward amnesty. Beyond that, there was a never-ending scroll of past dalliances with Democrats. So Hayworth, too, came armed. For the first few months of the campaign, he hammered McCain for his votes against the Bush tax cuts and for the bank bailout, to the delight of voters frustrated with Washington. As winter turned into spring, Hayworth’s poll numbers began to tick up, from 22 points down in Rasmussen’s January survey to just seven by mid-March. The former drive-time host on KFYI, charismatic and with a linebacker’s build, basked in the attention. He was going to be a giant-killer, the Great Right Hope.

When I found Hayworth greeting his fans at the Conservative Political Action Conference in late February, the candidate was boastful. “John McCain is vulnerable on everything,” he said, beaming. “He should rename his bus the Double-Talk Express. His campaign of conservative conversion is just sad and predictable.” Yet all was not well in Hayworth land: A clip from his talk show in which he chatted about President Obama’s birth certificate surfaced, and McCain pounced. “Consumed by conspiracies!” screamed one spot. Instead of being able to highlight McCain’s policy shifts, Hayworth was boxed into a corner, forced to deny, over and over again, that he was a “birther.” Then, while at CPAC, he caught more flak, this time for sitting down for an interview with the John Birch Society.

#page#But Hayworth doggedly fought on, and swatted away the criticisms. Even after McCain vocally led the floor fight against Obamacare, Arizona Republicans remained skeptical of the senator’s jolt to the right. A late-March stump stop for McCain by Sarah Palin, his running mate in 2008, also did little to stir the base. By mid-April, Rasmussen put Hayworth within five points of McCain — but his springtime momentum was to be short-lived. Before the month ended, reacting to numerous reports of increased violence along the border, Gov. Jan Brewer signed Arizona Senate Bill 1070, which requires immigrants to carry proof of legal status, and ignited a countrywide debate on immigration. With his key issue suddenly dominating state politics and national headlines, Hayworth looked to surge. McCain, however, elbowed Hayworth out of the spotlight by jumping into the fray as a self-proclaimed border sheriff — advocating an increased National Guard presence and billions for new security measures.

#ad#“Complete the danged fence!” the senator growled in an ad, with his Navy cap on and a border guard alongside. McCain then proposed a tough ten-point plan on border security with Sen. Jon Kyl, his fellow Arizona Republican, and touted it on the cable networks and Sunday shows. As McCain drastically recast himself, Hayworth’s climb stalled out. Unlike many senior incumbents, “who make the mistake [of thinking] that people love them,” McCain “recognized that he had real problems,” says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. “He was willing to turn 180 degrees on immigration and the maverick label.”

McCain’s friends say the brazen repositioning — or the “adjustment,” depending on whom you ask — was instinctual as much as it was political. “He sensed early that this could become serious, that this was an awful year,” says Mark Salter, his longtime speechwriter. The primary, Salter says, was viewed within McCain’s inner circle much like the senator’s 1992 reelection bid, “which came so quickly after Keating,” an influence-peddling scandal in which McCain had become entangled. “Everyone agreed that this is a year where you had to make an effort.” McCain’s border maneuvers led to gains in the polls: By late May, he was up by double digits. He was also blanketing the airwaves, outspending Hayworth ten to one.

Then, in June, as Brian Rogers puts it, political “gold” fell into the campaign’s lap — something much more damaging to Hayworth than his talk about Obama’s birth certificate: A YouTube video surfaced showing him, while out of office, hawking “free money” from the federal government. The ad was made soon after Hayworth lost his House seat in 2006, and introduces him as a former member of the Ways and Means Committee who will help viewers obtain a government grant. “It’s something you should take advantage of,” he explains. Needless to say, this was a message the tea partiers loathed. McCain began to tag Hayworth as a “huckster” whenever he could, and by early July he had a 23-point lead in one poll and a 45-point lead in another.

While Hayworth floundered, McCain demonstrated his stature on military matters. As the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, the senator was a stalwart voice in favor of the Afghan War during the turmoil surrounding Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s radioactive comments to Rolling Stone magazine. When I met with McCain in early July, all he wanted to talk about was the war. A few days later, McCain led a group of senators on a surprise Fourth of July trip to Afghanistan and Iraq. On television, in Arizona as elsewhere, it was McCain the senior statesman. Hayworth could do little to compete with McCain’s furrowed-brow leadership on national security.

By now, McCain’s path to victory was clear. Two July debates were left — Hayworth’s best chances to change the dynamic of the race. “I knew that I had to do well in the debates,” McCain says. “I could not let him bother me with his shtick.” McCain decided to focus on policy. “We could convince people not to like Coke, sure,” he says. “But I had to give them a reason to like Pepsi.”

#page#On July 16, the gloves came off in Phoenix, where McCain met Hayworth and Jim Deakin, a little-known tea-party activist, in the first televised debate. Hayworth was never able to draw blood. Both McCain and Hayworth appeared relaxed and prepared. “I have never seen such smiley candidates in my life,” Larry Sabato says. McCain called himself a “proud Ronald Reagan conservative” and stole a line from the Gipper, too, saying often about Hayworth: “There he goes again.”

#ad#Hayworth, for his part, did his best to call out McCain’s “political shape-shifting” without getting nasty. “I’m the consistent conservative,” he said, and McCain is the “convenient” one. He took time to apologize for his grab-your-handout infomercial, in order to free himself up to go on offense. “I’m willing to admit my mistakes,” he said; “they were more personal in nature. The unfortunate thing, John, is that you’ve made mistakes that have hurt America.” He also chided McCain for running harder against him than he had against Barack Obama. “Shame on you,” Hayworth said, wagging his finger. It was not enough. Hayworth got in some entertaining one-liners and quips, but failed to deliver the knockout he needed.

McCain seemed every bit the happy warrior. “McCain is a pugilist,” says Rick Davis, McCain’s longtime senior adviser. “He does not take it personally, in the sense that he does not hate Hayworth or have some kind of personal vendetta against him. Being in the ring so long, he has become realistic about these kinds of things, and approaches them in an almost clinical fashion.” McCain adds that he was itching for a brawl, even after two bruising presidential campaigns. “I was never like, ‘Oh, God, not this again,’” he laughs. “I like this stuff.”

Thanks to his strategic opportunism and tactical aggressiveness, McCain’s victory on Tuesday can now be chalked up as another “he survived” moment for the Arizona senator. “John McCain has nine lives,” says Mark McKinnon, a former senior McCain adviser unaffiliated with the campaign. “Clearly, he’s got a few left. The primary challenge just proves that the old soldier still has a lot of fight left in him.” At least enough, apparently, to get past a flawed challenger like J. D. Hayworth.

Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.

Robert Costa — Robert Costa is National Review's Washington editor and a CNBC political analyst. He manages NR's Capitol Hill bureau and covers the White House, Congress, and national campaigns. ...

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