Sen. John McCain, first elected in 1986 after spending four years in the House and then rising to the peak of political party politics by winning the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, is likely headed for a competitive re-election next year. And, his strongest opponent may not even be a Democrat.
This week, Representatives Matt Salmon (R-AZ-5) and David Schweikert (R-AZ-6) held a meeting; one that could prove to be of great importance fast forwarding to their state’s August 2016 Republican primary. Both members have said publicly that they are considering launching an intra-party challenge to Sen. McCain.
The session apparently produced at least one major point of agreement. That is, both will not enter the race. They correctly reason that two congressmen jumping into the contest will guarantee McCain victory. This is particularly true in a plurality nomination state like Arizona, because the anti-incumbent vote will be split several ways, allowing the target to win with a mere base vote sometimes far under the 50 percent threshold. The pair has not yet agreed upon which man will run, only that it will be one.
The history of right-of-center challenges to more establishment political figures suggests a narrow path to victory, but part of the long odds calculation is that the conservative activists rarely coalesce to form a cohesive election strategy.
For example, the conservative/right-of-center/Tea Party movement’s internal ploy against House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) earlier this month is a case in point. Because the challenge to Boehner’s House Speaker role featured three Speaker opponents haphazardly announcing within a day to three days before the opening session, the 25 votes registered against Boehner fractured and made the opposition seem much smaller. Little notice was paid to the fact that more than 10 percent of the Speaker’s own conference voted against him, and that he failed to reach absolute majority support. A coordinated pre-vote strategy would have scored both points without gaining any additional votes, while improving the challengers’ combined image instead of allowing it to become further tarnished.
Turning back to Arizona, if this Salmon-Schweikert meeting leads to McCain drawing only one strong opponent, then the challenge gains credibility and victory over the incumbent becomes possible.
Five years ago in the 2010 election, Sen. McCain also drew a primary challenger. That year, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, who had been defeated for re-election in 2006, challenged the veteran senator for re-nomination. He and a minor candidate, neither of who ran a particularly strong campaign, held McCain to a 56 percent victory. Projecting forward to six years later, this type of anti-McCain base suggests that a one-opponent challenge from a credible candidate with a well-run campaign has a chance to make the 2016 challenge quite a serious one.
Rep. Salmon could prove to be the strongest potential McCain opponent. He ran for governor in 2002 after keeping his pledge to serve no more than three consecutive US House terms, thereby not seeking re-election in 2000. He secured the Republican nomination and almost beat then-Attorney General Janet Napolitano (D) in the general election. Salmon scored 45.2 percent of the vote against Napolitano’s 46.2 percent, a margin of less than 12,000 votes from 1.26 million ballots cast.
Out of office for 12 years, Salmon returned to win an open congressional seat in 2012 and was re-elected to a fifth non-consecutive term with 70 percent of the vote last November.
Should things continue upon this early-charted course, Sen. McCain may find himself facing the most difficult re-election challenge of his career.