Campaign Crawlers

Year of the Challengers

CPAC swarms with Republican candidates this year.

By 2.19.10

Late Wednesday night at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, the elevator doors opened and a well-dressed man entered. "Excuse me, but you look familiar," I said.

"Marco… Marco Rubio," said the Florida Republican whose Senate campaign has become a crusade for conservatives.

Bumping into a Republican candidate isn't exactly difficult at this week's Conservative Political Action Conference. At times it seems that every other person you meet in the hallway is running for Congress, or on the campaign staff of someone who is.

In the corridor next to the hotel lobby Thursday, retired Army Lt. Col. Allen West was talking about the "fantastic momentum" of his congressional campaign in Florida's 22nd District. In the Bloggers Lounge, I'm handed a card promoting Liz Carter, a Republican candidate in Georgia's 4th District, which in 2008 voted 75 percent for Democrat Rep. Hank Johnson. On the sidewalk outside the hotel, David Ratowitz displays his new shoes -- having worn out three pairs during his successful campaign to win the GOP nomination in Illinois' 5th District, which voted by more than 2-to-1 for Democrat Rep. Michael Quigley in an April 2009 special election to replace Rahm Emanuel, now President Obama's chief of staff.

To borrow the lyrics of an old Buffalo Springfield song, "There's something happening here" at CPAC. Conservatives scent victory in this fall's mid-term election, and every Republican who has ever considered running for office has decided this is the year to do it.

Among other things, this has resulted in primary challenges against Republican incumbents, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, who was accused of "blatant hypocrisy" yesterday in a CPAC speech by his GOP challenger, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth.

The Republican Party's 2008 presidential nominee was slammed by Hayworth as part of the "Washington establishment" -- two words that amount to electoral poison in a year when voters are clearly in a mood of populist resentment that is both anti-Washington and anti-establishment. Arizona's senior senator "has undergone a campaign-year conversion to conservatism," Hayworth said in his speech to a CPAC panel devoted to First Amendment issues.

Hayworth noted that the Supreme Court recently rejected McCain's signature legislation, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, as unconstitutional. A popular talk-radio host in Phoenix, Hayworth said McCain has attempted to "intimidate" the radio station that airs his program.

"After 28 years in Washington…it's time for [McCain] to come home," Hayworth said, eliciting hearty applause from the conservatives gathered in hotel ballroom.

It is difficult to calculate the odds on Hayworth's challenge to McCain. In addition to the natural inertia of incumbency, McCain has vastly larger sums of campaign cash, an ironic advantage for a senator who has for years railed about the corrupting influence of big money in politics.

The usual calculations may be irrelevant in a year when a Republican can win the Massachusetts Senate seat held for nearly five decades by Ted Kennedy. More than any other single event, Scott Brown's victory in last month's special election has inspired conservatives to imagine possibilities that previously seemed impossible. Democrats may be the chief objects of this insurgency, but the Republican status quo could also sustain damage from the grassroots uprising.

No one symbolizes that insurgent spirit so much as Rubio, the Floridian who was enthusiastically applauded yesterday as he gave the keynote address kicking off this annual gathering of conservative activists.

Perhaps no line in Rubio's speech was so fervently cheered as when he declared that "the U.S. Senate already has one Arlen Specter too many" -- a clear reference to his rival in the Florida GOP rival, Gov. Charlie Crist, who was endorsed last year by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Polls have showed Rubio steadily gaining against Crist, demonstrating the declining ability of the Republican establishment to control the outcome of contested primaries. The omens are obvious enough.

"From tea parties to the election in Massachusetts, we are witnessing the single greatest political pushback in American history," Rubio told the CPAC crowd yesterday.

There is definitely something happening here, but as that 1967 Buffalo Springfield hit said, "what it is ain't exactly clear." What is clear -- as one bumps into GOP candidates casually wandering the halls of the Marriott Wardman Park -- is that conservatives believe that 2010 represents a rising electoral tide that could lift all Republican boats.

Except maybe John McCain's.

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