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« Morning Thoughts: Nothing To See Here | Blog Home Page | Voting Problems In AZ »

McCain's Arizona Problem

John McCain will win all of Arizona's allocated delegates when polls close this evening. But come November, and even earlier if the Republican primary race continues beyond today's primaries, the Copper State could become a serious albatross around his neck.

McCain's legendary temper and maverick streak have irked members of the GOP on virtually all sides. No one knows that better than those who should be his biggest backers, the top leadership of the Arizona Republican Party. Instead, they are some of his most ardent foes, and McCain's actions earlier this year have done little to assuage their anger.

"The Senate immigration bill put everything into a complete tailspin out here," said one top Arizona Republican who didn't want to be named in order to offer an honest portrait of the situation. After McCain's strong support for comprehensive immigration reform, a bill on which he worked with Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, some in the state Republican Party made it their goal to derail his entire campaign.

One of those opponents is Rob Haney, chairman of an important legislative district for the Republican Party in Phoenix. "[McCain] has been disregarding us for years," Haney said, "siding with liberals against conservatives for years." Haney says that on issues beyond immigration, McCain is an unreliable vote. "When you take your chance with John McCain, you come out the big loser."

McCain and some more moderate Republicans have for years tried to steer their home state's party to the middle, especially on immigration, though they have been less than successful in doing so. In two key battles, McCain allies lost tough fights to replace foes who could cause harm. Former Governor Fyfe Symington ran against Haney for district chair, and came up short, while a former campaign aide to President Bush -- hardly a McCain flak, but pegged as one nonetheless -- ran for state party chair only to lose by four votes to Randy Pullen, another anti-immigration activist.

Activists' focus on immigration has damaged relations with more state politicians than just McCain. "The immigration debate of last year did create a stir, and there were a lot of folks who were not happy with Senator McCain or me," said Senator Jon Kyl, McCain's national campaign co-chairman and one of his top national surrogates. Haney criticized Kyl, along with Reps. Jeff Flake and John Shadegg, both of whom are backing McCain. "They want that Senate seat, so they're tripping over each other" to support McCain, Haney said.

Nowhere has the immigration debate caused such rifts within a state Republican Party. The top Republican who asked not to be named criticized what he sees as a party overwhelmingly focused on immigration. "One of the reasons they're not being a successful state party is because they're essentially an anti-immigration PAC," he said. "They have essentially thumbed their noses at the business community and the bigger donor community."

State Republicans last year lost two U.S. House seats -- those of retiring moderate Jim Kolbe and immigration hardliner J.D. Hayworth -- as winning Democrats held largely more moderate positions than their GOP counterparts. That, said Kyl, a former state party chair himself, shows what Arizona Republicans need to focus on this year. "Candidates and office-holders take positions on issues and have to stand or fall on the basis of how people react to that," he told Politics Nation. "The party can't possibly represent everybody on a particular issue. Their primary responsibility is to help support their candidates."

Still, those who oppose McCain were emboldened by wins at the state party level and set out to derail his candidacy. Several straw polls were set up, rigged, the top Arizona Republican said, to ensure another candidate would win and cause McCain embarrassment in his home state. Arizona has also been good to candidates other than McCain, most notably Mitt Romney, who's picked up about half the amount of money from the state -- $1.3 million -- that McCain has. McCain has earned close to $2.8 million from his home state, through September 30, according to the FEC.

There is little Haney or other anti-McCain advocates can do about today's results. Polls conducted in recent weeks show McCain with a significant lead of 16.3 points, according to the latest RCP Arizona Average. The state's winner-take-all rules mean even a narrow McCain win will give him a big boost of more than 50 delegates. "At this point, they are in a complete flailing spin trying to discredit McCain as much as they can, and they will do it to no avail," the Republican said of activists in his own party.

But while Haney and others won't be able to boost their favored candidate -- Romney -- to victory tonight, they might just make sure that McCain remembers them as thorns in his side long after polls close tonight. And if they do, McCain's already troubled relations with conservatives around the country could be exacerbated.

Immigration, after all, was the issue that harmed McCain's campaign so much last Spring, bringing his poll numbers down to a miserable level just near the double-digit barrier. Immigration hard-liners from McCain's own state reminding Republicans about his stands might be just the thing for Romney to investigate.