Politics & Policy

How McCain Survived

McCain at Team McCain headquarters in Phoenix in May. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)
Early planning, and some luck, kept him out of trouble

In August 2015, when Arizona representative Matt Salmon was publicly mulling a primary challenge to Senator John McCain, a national Republican polling firm tested the waters. The results, provided to National Review by a GOP consultant, were remarkably lopsided: Salmon led McCain 57 percent to 24 percent, with 16 percent undecided.

McCain had already kicked into high gear in his race for a sixth term in the U.S. Senate. But looking at those poll numbers, it didn’t even seem to be a sure thing that he’d be on the ballot in November.

One year later, on Tuesday night, McCain bested state senator Kelli Ward 52 percent to 39 percent. It was a result that, by the time the primary rolled around, seemed a foregone conclusion. In the year since that poll was conducted, a lot of things had gone right for McCain. The two challengers who could have potentially beaten him in a primary opted not to run. Early efforts by McCain and his allies prevented him from being taken unawares by a weaker candidate, as some of his colleagues were in years past. And Ward proved a lackluster candidate, unable to attract the money and support from outside groups that might have helped her over the finish line.

Heading into the 2016 cycle, it seemed all but certain that McCain was destined for a rough primary challenge. The 2014 elections had revealed a continued willingness on the part of outside groups to fund primary challengers to longtime incumbents they deemed insufficiently conservative — even when it would be an uphill battle. Mississippi senator Thad Cochran barely fended off a challenge from state senator Chris McDaniel, who had the backing of the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund.

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In February 2015, Club for Growth president David McIntosh told reporters the group would “watch closely” to see how the McCain primary developed, and who challenged him, and then consider getting involved. McCain is no favorite of many conservatives — it was he who coined the term “wacko birds” to describe Ted Cruz and his allies in Congress. What’s more, the two congressmen publicly mulling challenging McCain — Salmon and Representative David Schweikert — were both Club for Growth favorites.

That was the worst-case scenario for McCain, confidantes and advisers say — either or Salmon or Schweikert getting in, and, specifically, the fact that they would likely bring in outside groups like the Club for Growth, whose super PAC could devote hundreds of thousands of dollars on top of whatever the campaign itself spent. “McCain can always outraise these guys, but it’s when the super PACs focus” that it becomes more challenging, says one McCain adviser.

McCain’s allies knew what was coming if McCain opted to seek reelection. He’d faced a primary from J. D. Hayworth in 2010, and in January of 2014, the Arizona Republican party formally censured McCain him for his “disastrous and harmful” record. “We didn’t need to poll to know that 25–30 percent of GOP primary voters in Arizona were going to vote for anybody but John McCain — that’s been always the case,” says Christian Ferry, a former McCain staffer. So in February of 2014, Ferry and another former McCain aide, Jon Seaton, launched Arizona Grassroots Action to start building up grassroots support for McCain and help elect precinct committee members to the state party who would be more favorable to the senior senator. “The lack of a robust grassroots organization is something [potential challengers] look at and say, that might present an opportunity,” explains Ferry. He and Seaton set out to erase that vulnerability.

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In early 2015, McCain formally kicked off his reelection with a large fundraiser in Phoenix, presenting a united front of support from donors as a way to discourage anyone from trying to make inroads. In the first fundraising quarter of 2015, he raised $2.1 million, his largest haul of any quarter this cycle.

It was the opening salvo in a year when McCain’s camp, by their own account, endeavored to “remind the people that were possible primary opponents that number one, John was the best campaigner in the state, and secondly that he could raise unlimited money if he needed to,” says Charlie Black, a longtime friend and adviser of McCain. As one Republican put it, “if you’re going to run against John McCain, you better make sure you kill him.”

“We talked directly and indirectly to people and talked to their friends to try to discourage the more major contenders,” Black says.

Schweikert and Salmon shrug off the idea that they received any peer pressure to get out of the race. “I’ve been strong-armed on other races,” Schweikert says, but in this one, “they really didn’t come at us that hard, at least in my personal experience.”

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Salmon recalls that McCain’s chief of staff “reached out to my chief of staff on a few occasions just to kind of sound us out and see where we were.” Pressure not to run, he says, came from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which “reached out to my chief of staff and said, ‘You know if Matt runs, we’ll be fully supporting McCain,’” referring to the NRSC’s position of going to the mat for incumbents.

For Schweikert, the decision was made on “the math,” which he says simply didn’t add up for him. He was not convinced he would have the necessary resources, and his increasing “level of frustration with Congress’s unwillingness to do things that are necessary but tough,” he told National Review in March, made him question whether he ought to be committing to a six-year term. Beyond that, Schweikert and his wife adopted a baby girl in December 2015, leaving him less inclined to spend a year on the campaign trail.

Salmon ultimately opted to retire from Congress altogether. “I’d just really had enough of being away from my family,” he says.

#share#It’s an open question how much money would really have been there from outside groups. Taking on McCain and his massive war chest would have been a hugely expensive endeavor, and the presidential campaign was soaking up a lot of resources on the Republican side.

“We did for a couple weeks go out and contact folks around the country who’ve always been very kind to us in the conservative movement, and a lot of them just were so preoccupied for the moment with the presidential race,” Schweikert told National Review in March. “We weren’t finding the resources that were necessary.”

Salmon recalls a different experience. “The conservative groups — the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, Senate Conservatives Fund — they were strongly encouraging me to run. All of them said pretty much if you’re in, we’re all in. I think the resources would’ve been there.”

But whatever outside support might have been there for Schweikert or Salmon never materialized for Ward, who failed to convince outside groups and donors, for the most part, that she was worth supporting. A notable exception was megadonor Robert Mercer, who, along with his wife Diana, donated several hundred thousand dollars to the super PAC backing Ward. But beyond that, the support she got came from lesser-known conservative groups, while those that have historically put large amounts of money behind their efforts — the Club for Growth, Senate Conservatives Fund, and FreedomWorks — stayed out of the fray.

“They were worried she might be a little kooky,” says one Republican involved with outside conservative groups. McCain’s team did what they could to further that sense. Arizona Grassroots Action welcomed her into the race with a digital video pointing out that she’d once held a town hall to discuss concerns about chemtrails, a known conspiracy theory.

Perhaps an even bigger issue: Ward’s lackluster fundraising. She raised just $512,000 in her first quarter as a candidate, reporting $390,000 cash on hand. It was a paltry sum for a Senate hopeful, especially for someone trying to take on McCain, who closed the quarter with a $5 million war chest.

“I think that sends a message to everybody. Arizona’s a pretty wealthy state with a lot of conservative donors; if you can’t raise that money, why should we get in?” the Republican added.

Asked about the decision to ultimately stay out of the race, Club for Growth communications director Doug Sachtleben says it simply wasn’t deemed a good investment.

“It really comes down to us, for our PAC, is being good stewards of our members’ money. And so not only are we looking for a good ideology, but we’re looking for a viable campaign and then a path to victory,” he says.

It was a source of distress for Ward supporters. “We didn’t get the support from the other PACs like we thought we would on it,” says Doug McKee, the treasurer of KelliPAC, the super PAC that backed Ward’s bid. When Ward announced the endorsements of Kentucky representative Thomas Massie and Oklahoma representative Jim Bridenstine, a Freedom Caucus member, in the final two weeks of the campaign, the most notable thing about the endorsements was the fact that they were notable at all. It was only the second instance of D.C. lawmakers backing her bid.

#related#Ward, interviewed a week before the primary, waves off the lack of conservative buy-in. “Of course you can always use extra help from as many hands on deck as possible,” but, she snipes, “unfortunately [Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund] gave us [Senator] Jeff Flake in Arizona, so their track record with Arizona conservatives isn’t that good.”

Over the course of 2015, McCain reached out to some of the outside conservative groups that might have backed a challenger, Black says, asking that if they wouldn’t back his reelection, they would consider staying out of the race. It’s not clear how much impact that ultimately had on the groups, which might still have gotten involved with a better challenger.

McCain now heads to a general election where he will face Arizona representative Ann Kirkpatrick. McCain is favored, though some Republicans worry that this could change as Trump’s low poll numbers continue to threaten upheaval in down ballot races that previously seemed safe. It’s notable that Arizona Republicans have long spoken about the general election posing a bigger challenge than the primary in a state where no Democrat has won statewide since 2006.

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