A year that began with concerns among members of his team over whether Arizona Sen. John McCain would face a viable primary challenger from his right is ending with the fifth-term Republican looking mostly unfazed.
Though about six months remain between now and Arizona’s June 1 candidate filing deadline, all but one of the Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation — Rep. David Schweikert — have said they will not run against him, and the three GOP candidates in the race against him haven’t gained much traction. “No matter the consternation about Sen. McCain on the right, he’s a tough cookie who’d be tough to beat,” said one Republican operative with knowledge of the race.
McCain’s best known foe is Kelli Ward, a deeply conservative Republican who resigned from the state Senate earlier this month to focus on her campaign full-time. As she said then, “I look forward to bringing it to Sen. McCain, because he has never faced a well-spoken, well-educated, down-to-earth, Constitution-loving woman.”
But while Ward has energized the anti-McCain crowd — about a third of the primary electorate — Arizona Republican operatives said she has struggled to convince national conservative groups she has a path to victory worth spending money on.
Doug Sachtleben, a spokesman for the conservative Club For Growth, said in Arizona, like any other state in which they might invest, they are looking for “a candidate who is good on pro-growth issues and would be an improvement over the incumbent, who is viable with good campaign mechanism and fundraising, and then who has a path to victory, which is typically evident through polling.”
Earlier this year, the Club For Growth made clear its interest in taking on McCain, a favorite of moderate hawks in the Republican Party and among those held up as an example of all that’s wrong with Washington by conservatives. Sachtleben said the group is “watching” the Grand Canyon State, but has “no plans for action at this point.”
While national conservatives remain on the sidelines, McCain’s allies are already in action.
As Arizonans prepared to gather Wednesday in Mesa for a campaign rally with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, Arizona Grassroots Action — a Northern Virginia-based super PAC aligned with McCain — planned advertisements that would geo-target the mobile phones of attendees with pro-McCain messages on veterans and national security , a source close to the group said Tuesday.
With the issue of national security on the rise, McCain — famous as a veteran and former prisoner of war — has been emboldened in his primary, while his Democratic opponent, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, has tried to use it to criticize him. Last week, she joined other Democratic challengers who have hit their Republican rivals for their votes against a measure that would bar people on the terrorist watch list from purchasing guns.
But just a few days later, he was beaming at a weekend campaign rally with another former Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney. Standing on that stage, rather than hiding from his party establishment credentials, McCain embraced them.
“We need a great American senator like John McCain in office,” Romney told the crowd of about 1,000, according to a campaign official. “Someone, who understands the needs of those in uniform, and is knowledgeable about foreign policy.”
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