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Conservative Groups Not Sold on John McCain Challenger

McCain speaks to reporters in the Ohio Clock Corridor. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Conservative outside groups have made it crystal clear they want John McCain out of the Senate, but a fog remains over whether any will back the Arizona Republican’s most prominent opponent so far.

While state Sen. Kelli Ward, a doctor who hails from a predominantly rural district in Lake Havasu City, is the most well-known Republican to enter the race, she has yet to earn the backing of some of the major conservative organizations able to offer significant financial support.

When asked if the Senate Conservatives Fund had a candidate in mind to replace McCain, a spokesperson said, “We are looking at this race as it develops, like we are with many other races.” A FreedomWorks spokesman said earlier this year the group would only back a “viable candidate.” And Club for Growth spokesman Doug Sachtleben hedged on July 20 when asked if the group would support Ward’s candidacy.

“The Club for Growth PAC’s many differences with Sen. McCain on taxes, regulations, and political speech are well known, but we are presently not involved in the Arizona senate race, and we have no intention of becoming involved unless and until there is a viable challenger who would represent a significant improvement on pro-growth issues,” he said in an email to Roll Call.

It’s unclear if that person will ever come. Within the GOP delegation, Rep. Paul Gosar has ruled out a run, Rep. Matt Salmon recently dismissed the notion he would challenge McCain during an interview with a Phoenix TV station, and Rep. David Schweickert has shown little interest.

McCain has never been the most popular Republican among conservatives. They cite his votes with Democrats and some of the more moderate Republicans to raise the debt ceiling, his support of the bank bailout efforts in 2008 and his sponsorship of a bipartisan immigration overhaul.

“There are few Republicans who have betrayed our conservative principles more than John McCain,” said Ken Cuccinelli, president of the Senate Conservatives Fund and a former attorney general of Virginia.

Still, there is an obvious unease from potentially competitive conservatives about challenging the five-term incumbent, whose political instincts and fundraising ability helped him dispatch former Rep. J.D. Hayworth in the 2010 GOP primary by 24 points.

As the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, McCain, who will be 80 and have served in the Senate for three decades when he faces voters next fall, has both an Arizona and national network of supporters.

In the last quarter, McCain raised $1 million, ending the first half of the year with $4.5 million on hand. Ward, who announced her candidacy after the second quarter, will not have to unveil her fundraising totals to the Federal Election Commission until October, at which point conservative groups could reconsider her.

Ward, in an emailed statement, said she has already received national contributions. She added that she has “great respect” for the groups hoping to beat McCain, but she plans to simply “work every day on what’s in my control.”

“I’m solely focused on raising money, organizing our grassroots efforts, and doing my level best to get the word out to Arizonans that John McCain isn’t the conservative he claims to be,” she said.

While conservatives hoping to defeat the senator from the right scramble, McCain is lining up the Republican establishment behind him. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, an incumbent-driven organization, said it’s “in 100 percent behind Sen. McCain,” and on July 21 the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched a 10-day ad campaign in Phoenix touting McCain’s defense credentials.

The chamber’s ad came as real estate mogul Donald Trump, who is running as a Republican for president, propelled McCain’s campaign for re-election into the national spotlight following incendiary comments about the former prisoner of war’s heroism.

That came after a Trump rally in Phoenix. McCain did not approve of Trump’s performance there, including his remarks about immigration, telling the New Yorker that Trump “fired up the crazies.” And during his trip to Arizona, Trump reportedly met with state Treasurer Jeff DeWit to urge him to challenge McCain.

Ward praised McCain’s military service in her July 14 campaign announcement video, explaining it’s his voting record she opposes.

“In the Navy, John McCain served our country honorably. He’s an American hero who’s earned our respect,” she said. “But, as the senior senator from Arizona, John McCain has too often disappointed conservatives.”

In addition to support from the party establishment, McCain also has the backing of a super PAC called Arizona Grassroots Action, which launched a website — bearing her surname in its URL — on the same day Ward announced her candidacy. The page featured exactly what conservatives who want to beat McCain know could be Ward’s vulnerabilities.

A video on the website pokes fun at the unwanted attention she received over a state Senate probe she led into the conspiracies about the government’s alleged use of chemical trails to affect citizens, as well as the legislation she backed that would prohibit the state of Arizona from working with the National Security Agency, “threatening Arizona’s security.”

The Ward campaign declined an interview request and didn’t respond to a subsequent emailed request for comment.

The Arizona Senate race is rated Leans Republican by the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call. Democrats, looking to win back Senate control, are eyeing it in a year the GOP is defending most of the seats on the map.

Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick announced her candidacy amid uncertainty over whether the Supreme Court would strike the state’s congressional map and potentially draw her into an unwinnable district. Instead, the court upheld the state independent commission’s map, but Kirkpatrick has stayed in the Senate race.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has formally endorsed a few House members vying for the Senate, but it’s stopped short of doing the same for Kirkpatrick. DSCC spokesman Justin Barasky said while the committee thinks Kirkpatrick is a “great candidate,” it’s not yet made a decision to endorse.


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