Can Hayworth Beat McCain?

Can J. D. Hayworth─the former Arizona congressman turned talk-radio host who announced yesterday that he's running as the "consistent conservative" in the Grand Canyon State's 2010 Republican Senate primary─actually beat John McCain? You know, John McCain: the two-time presidential candidate and 27-year veteran of Congress who hasn't faced a serious primary challenge since 1982?

Not really. But there's a chance that McCain could beat himself. 

Let's start with Hayworth. Although he may be the first halfway plausible Republican torun against McCain in decades, that's not really saying much. He's too weak to sink McCain on his own. Hayworth's strategy--slam the incumbent as a "moderate"on torture, immigration, and global warming, then ride the righteous indignation of the tea-partiers all the way to the Republican nomination--is fine, as gar as it goes. But the problem is that the tea-party movement is fueled as much by populist, anti-Washington anger as by some kind of cohesive, far-right philosophy─and it's not clear that on this count Hayworth's record will hold up to scrutiny. Between 1999 and 2005, Hayworth received $69,000 from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and repeatedly hosted fundraisers in Abramoff's sports skyboxes─for free. When Abramoff was convicted of defrauding his Native-American clients, Hayworth refused to return a single cent. At the same time, Hayworth's PAC was paying 25 percent of its revenue to Hayworth's wife, Mary. All of which contributed to the impression among voters that Hayworth was a boisterous, "business as usual" Beltway politico and led to his humiliating 2006 loss to Democrat Harry E.Mitchell.

With $5 million in his coffers for the campaign─and tea-party heroes Scott Brown and Sarah Palin on his side─McCain will have no problemdrowning out his underfunded rival and driving this message home. In fact, he's already begun. "Mr. Hayworth was the largest recipient of campaign contributions tied to the corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff," a McCain spokesman said in a statement yesterday, which was timed to coincide with Hayworth's official announcement. "The fact is, the people of Arizona rejected Mr.Hayworth’s ‘undistinguished’ record when they resoundingly voted him out of his solidly Republican U.S. House seat in2006.” Early signs suggest that Republican primary voters aren't unaware of Hayworth's spotty past; the latest poll, from Jan. 20, shows McCain clobbering his opponent 53 percent to 31 percent. And given that Hayworth is already a more familiar figure than most challengers─only 17 percent of respondents say they haven't formed an opinion of him yet─there isn't all that much room for improvement.

The problem is, which McCain will choose to show up? The senator has never really been a "moderate"; his lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is 81.43 out of 100. But he has gone unchallenged in Arizona for years─meaning he's been free to operate largely on a national level, without worrying too much about the fickle electorate back home. As a result, McCain has carved out a niche for himself not as a centrist but as an as idiosyncrasy: a staunch Reagan conservative in the 1980s, a bipartisan "maverick" in the1990s, an anti-Bush warrior in the 2000s, an anti-Obama warrior now. The key for McCain has always been believing─and getting his constituents to believe─that wherever he was veering at any given moment, it was his conscience (rather than, say, politics or special interest groups) that was guiding him. Brand McCain was built on this special kind of"authenticity." 

But now, with a primary challenge from the right,McCain is beginning to mold himself into what he thinks Arizonans want.As recently noted, he's already "sharply criticize[d] the bailout bill he voted for, pivoted from his earlier position that the Guantánamo Bay detention facility should be closed, offered only a muted response to the Supreme Court’s decision undoing campaign finance laws and backed down from statements that gays in the military would be O.K. by him if the military brass were on board." The rub, of course, is that Arizonans know who McCain is; they've been supporting him for nearly three decades, and they still do (the Rasmussen poll, for example, pegs his current approval rating among likely Republican primary voters at 74 percent). By morphing into Rush Limbaugh at the first sign of political friction, McCain risks exposing himself as a creature of politics rather than a creature of conscience─and undermining the very thing that Arizonans liked about him in the first place.

If McCain can keep the focus on Hayworth's transgressions, he should be fine. But if the race becomes a referendum on who McCain really is─and if McCain continues to react by abandoning his most "inconvenient" positions─he could be in trouble. In that case, it'll be the senator's disappearing act rather than his past moderation that winds up destroying him─regardless of whether he wins or loses.