Campaign Crawlers

‘Scorched Earth’ in Arizona

John McCain's big money campaign against J.D. Hayworth.

By 3.31.10

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PHOENIX, Arizona -- Behind a Dunkin' Donuts in a shopping center on East Cactus Road, J.D. Hayworth's Senate campaign headquarters has a low-budget look. Near the front door, pinned to a cubicle wall, is a campaign T-shirt proclaiming Hayworth "The Consistent Conservative," offered for sale at $15 each. Volunteers are stuffing envelopes at a folding table that holds seven telephones, the phone lines dangling down from the ceiling. A large bulletin board is festooned with letters from supporters, including a woman from Dewey, Arizona, who wrote to say, "Sock it to him, please!"

The "him" is, of course, Sen. John McCain, the Republican Party's 2008 presidential nominee and the man whose involuntary retirement from the Senate is the goal of Hayworth's candidacy.

Hayworth sits behind a desk in his office, signing thank-you letters to contributors who have given about $800,000 for his "Million-Dollar March" online fund-raising effort, and reflects on the central irony of this campaign: McCain, an outspoken advocate of "getting the big money out of politics," is spending big money in an all-out effort to destroy Hayworth's primary challenge.

"Obviously, the gulf between my opponent's rhetoric and the reality is so great it exceeds the geographic dimensions of our own Grand Canyon," Hayworth says. "It's more than a credibility gap, it's a credibility canyon.… If he was really concerned about [the influence of political contributions], he certainly seems to have gotten over it very quickly."

Whether McCain's big money will be enough to secure his re-election, it undoubtedly gives him advantages against Hayworth, whose low-budget campaign doesn't expect to match the incumbent dollar-for-dollar in the five months between now and the August 24 primary.

"We know we're not going to out-raise him," Hayworth says. "We're not going to out-spend him."

Exactly how much the McCain campaign has spent so far won't be known until the first-quarter Federal Election Commission reports are made public in April, but the incumbent ended 2009 with $5 million cash on hand and has invested heavily in attack ads against Hayworth.

"All he has to show for it is a 15-point swing toward me, and we're now down by seven points," says Hayworth, referring to a recent poll by Rasmussen Reports that showed him trailing by a 48-41 margin among likely primary voters -- a surprisingly slender lead for McCain, who was re-elected with 76 percent of the vote in 2004.

But 2010 is not 2004, and in the intervening years, McCain led a legislative push to grant amnesty to illegal aliens -- a very unpopular stance in Arizona, especially with Republican and conservative-leaning independents. (Arizona election law allows registered independents to vote in either party primary.) A Rasmussen poll last year found that Arizona voters considered immigration a more important issue than health-care reform and 65 percent said "enforcing the borders is more important than legalizing the status of those already living here."

The immigration issue has "gotten bigger" in Arizona recently, Hayworth says, after a Cochise County rancher was found shot dead Saturday near the Mexican border, a crime that law-enforcement officials suggest was committed by illegal aliens or smugglers who have made the border an increasingly dangerous place.

"Border security is national security and it is time that we enforce the law," Hayworth said in a press release reacting to the killing of 58-year-old Rob Krentz, whose family has owned a cattle ranch near the border for more than a century. "For thousands of Arizonans, border security is also quite literally a matter of personal security."

Among Hayworth's supporters who share that view is Chris Simcox, who founded the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a group that helped bring hundreds of volunteers to patrol the border in a 2005 protest against lax immigration enforcement by the Bush administration. Simcox had originally planned his own GOP primary challenge to McCain, but ended his candidacy after Hayworth threw his hat in the ring and is now a senior advisor to the Hayworth campaign.

"This campaign is gaining momentum by the hour, it seems," Simcox said Monday outside the Hayworth headquarters. "It's clear the people of Arizona want their Senate seat back. It's clear that Senator McCain feels that it's his seat. The voters of Arizona are going to, hopefully, throw a retirement party for him on August 24 -- thank him for his service, give him the gold watch and send him to retirement."

The 73-year-old incumbent, however, doesn't seem eager to retire and is wielding all his considerable power to shut down Hayworth's challenge. Taking on the powerful four-term senator (and his wife's influential Republican family) makes fundraising in Arizona a difficult task for Hayworth, as major GOP donors in the state fear the political consequences if it is discovered they have contributed to McCain's opponent.

So far, the most obvious impact of Hayworth's primary challenge has been McCain's election-year rediscovery of conservative rhetoric -- the senator made headlines yesterday by calling for deploying the National Guard to defend the border with Mexico -- but Hayworth suggests Arizonans are suffering from "McCain fatigue."

That may explain why Hayworth is being targeted by what he calls a "scorched earth" campaign from the incumbent. The challenger points out the McCain campaign began slamming him in attack ads even before Hayworth declared his candidacy for the Senate, and contrasts that approach with what he calls McCain's "kid gloves" treatment of Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.

"People say, 'Wait a minute, he's training all his fire on you, as a conservative, and he pulled punches… when we had so much at stake in the presidency,'" Hayworth says. Adapting a lyric from "My Fair Lady," he adds, "The disdain of McCain falls on conservatives in the main."

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.