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More Pain For McCain?

Since losing to Obama in November, Senator John McCain has conspicuously focused attention on his home state of Arizona, where he plans to run for his fifth term in 2010. The Arizona Republic recently reported that, in the few months since the presidential election, McCain has taken renewed interest in meeting with elected officials and getting up to speed on local issues. And, when he’s been in D.C., McCain has squashed any hope that he would revisit his “maverick” phase, circa 2001, by becoming a Republican friend to the White House. Instead, McCain has emerged as a vehement opponent of Obama’s stimulus package. He proposed his own plan, which leaned heavily on tax cuts, and refused to join the small cadre of moderate Republicans that eventually acquiesced to the Democrats’ version. McCain has also made several scrappy appearances on the morning news shows, blanching at the president’s claims of working across the aisle.

Which got us to wondering: Is McCain doing all of this because he’s worried about his reelection prospects in two years? Does he face significant challenges from either the left or the right? Here’s the lay of the land.

On the Democratic side: Arizona Democrats are in a deep hole. Republicans control the state’s executive and legislative branches and hold both U.S. Senate seats.* The Dems’ great hope to run against McCain was Governor Janet Napolitano, who as recently as the fall had an approval rating topping 50 percent aand even enjoyed solid support among Republicans during her tenure. But Obama tapped her to lead the Department of Homeland Security, and her departure has left the Democrats without a strong candidate to field against McCain, who won 76 percent of the vote in his last Senate race. (For more on how Napolitano’s departure hurt her state’s party, read here.) “There hasn’t been any discussion about any [candidates],” says Jorge Luis Garcia, minority leader in the state senate. “The Democratic Party would be willing to lend support to a candidate against Senator McCain. It would be very expensive--very, very, very expensive.” Patrick Kenney, political science professor at Arizona State University, adds that had Napolitano run, it might have been a dog fight. “[McCain] would’ve been looking at one of these $15 million a piece races,” Kenney says. But now? “There’s not competition.”

On the Republican side: McCain’s never been the base’s favorite Republican. For years, a group of far-right state legislators have complained that McCain should be ousted because he isn’t conservative enough. GOP state senator Jack Harper hinted to the Arizona Capitol Times in February 2008 that he might run against McCain--“Let me just say this, I love elections and I don’t like John McCain”--and, as recently as December, rumors circulated that there might be a serious challenge for the Republican nomination. (Harper didn’t respond to requests for comment.) But today, with McCain rallying against the stimulus in D.C. while Republicans nationwide face a treacherous electoral climate, a tough primary seems unlikely. “[Conservatives] have warmed up to him and will stay warmed up to him,” Kenney explains, adding that, with Senate Democrats edging close to a filibuster-proof 60 seats, Republicans are “going to send their best candidate out.” Brett Mecum, executive director of the Arizona Republican Party, insists that “no credible candidate will step forward to make a run against Senator McCain. There may be some minor opposition … [but] he’ll have pretty smooth sailing.”

In sum, it now looks like McCain will have a relatively painless reelection. Only a confluence of events would help the floundering Arizona Dems--namely, finding a stellar candidate (a surprise Napolitano return!?!), raising tons of money, hoping McCain’s stimulus opposition and other legislative efforts come back to haunt him, and, perhaps, uncovering some damaging new scandal. That’s asking for a lot of stars to align--probably too many stars.

Seyward Darby is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic.

*CORRECTION: The piece originally stated that Republicans presently hold a majority of Arizona's U.S. House seats. We regret the error.


By Seyward Darby