Conservative group threatens McCain primary challenge

Club for Growth leader says his group is weighing its options in Arizona Senate race

Published February 4, 2015 3:24PM (EST)

  (Jeff Malet,
(Jeff Malet,

John McCain is gearing up to seek a re-election to the Senate next year, but a major conservative group may seek to block his path to a sixth term in the chamber.

Speaking with reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast on Tuesday, Club for Growth president David McIntosh indicated that his group may back a conservative primary challenger to the 2008 GOP presidential nominee.

"We will watch that carefully," McIntosh said. "We'll look at John's record and his [Club for Growth] score."

The Club's scores function as a measure of conservative purity. In 2010, the year he fended off a right-wing primary challenge from former Congressman J. D. Hayworth, McCain earned a 100 percent Club score, although he slipped to 52 percent in 2013. The 29-year incumbent's lifetime score stands at 82 percent.

Although he has proven a persistent thorn in the side of the Obama administration on foreign policy and military affairs, McCain has earned the ire of conservative activists with his heresies on issues like immigration reform, gun control, and taxes.  In January 2014, Arizona Republicans passed a resolution censuring the senator for a record they described as “disastrous and harmful." The vote highlighted McCain's vulnerability on the right, a weakness further underscored by a March 2014 Public Policy Polling survey which found that only 35 percent of Republicans in the state approved of his job performance, against 55 percent who disapproved.

Those numbers may well entice the Club to intervene in the race. McIntosh said his group would weigh whether there's “a path to victory and is the money well spent.”

“Some institutions only engage in things they’re 90 percent sure will lead to victory,” he added. “The club is willing to take greater risk.”

Among McCain's potential intra-party foes are Congressmen Matt Salmon and Dave Schweikert, who have both hinted that they may vie for his seat. McIntosh told the Monitor breakfast that his group admires both congressmen.

The risk, of course, is that the Club could propel a conservative challenger to victory in the primary, only to witness that candidate lose a winnable seat to a Democrat. After ousting Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) in a 2012 primary, Club-backed Senate candidate Richard Mourdock went down to defeat in a red state following his remark that pregnancies resulting from rape were "something that God intended to happen." But the Club has seen a number of its candidates win in recent years, including Sens. Pat Toomey (R-PA), a former president of the group; Mike Lee (R-UT); Marco Rubio (R-FL); and Rand Paul (R-KY).

Regardless of whether Republicans nominate McCain or someone else, the Arizona race may be among the most competitive in the country next year. Potential Democratic candidates include Rep. Kyrsten Sinema and former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who narrowly lost the state's 2012 Senate race to Jeff Flake. With McCain holding the dubious distinction of being the country's most unpopular senator, it's hardly surprising that both Democrats and fellow Republicans see him as a ripe target.

By Luke Brinker

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