Arizona Update: GOP Gov Field Grows; Will Hayworth Take On McCain?

Some brief Arizona political observations from an all-too-brief visit over the weekend to member station KJZZ:

SENATE: For all the talk about how conservatives distrust John McCain (R) — which is hardly a new topic nationally — there doesn't seem to be any threat to his expected fifth-term Senate bid. I wasn't totally convinced, following last year's presidential campaign, that McCain would run again. But he has not faded to the sidelines in the Senate, and in fact has resumed his role as a major player. His comments, whether supportive of President Obama or not, regularly make national headlines.

McCain looks likely to get a challenge in the Aug. 24, 2010 primary from Chris Simcox, the co-founder of the anti-illegal immigrant Minutemen group. Immigration is one of the major issues in which McCain differs from many of those in the GOP; the senator has long been talking more about helping immigrants blend into society and get jobs and less about punishment and deportation. But it's hard to see Simcox making any headway.

A more interesting primary challenge to McCain has been suggested by supporters of former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, a conservative who lost his House seat in 2006.

According to Arizona Republic columnist Dan Nowicki, Hayworth is considering running because of a "long-standing grudge" he holds against McCain aide Mark Salter:

Hayworth charged [on his radio program] that in 2005 Salter tried to "blackmail" him into stopping his public criticism of McCain's comprehensive immigration-reform bill. Hayworth said his chief of staff got an e-mail from Salter indicating that McCain might retaliate by commenting in the media about Hayworth's links to the then-unfolding Jack Abramoff lobbyist corruption scandal.

Hayworth further suggested that Salter was responsible for planting false information in the Washington Times that said Hayworth was the "target" of an Abramoff-related Justice Department investigation. The Abramoff scandal helped Democrat Harry Mitchell upset Hayworth in 2006.

"Now do I know for a fact that Mark Salter was that unnamed source? No, I don't," Hayworth told his listeners. "But could a reasonable person connect the dots after, to be polite you could call it a threat, to be more realistic you could call it a threat of blackmail, in that memorandum?"

Salter, in turn, told The Arizona Republic Hayworth is making a mountain out of a molehill. He recalled writing "an angry e-mail and, if I remember correctly, I got an angry e-mail back and that was the end of it."

Hayworth has denied reports that he would challenge McCain out of "spite":

"No, I would never run for office, quote, out of spite, but I do have a profound disagreement with Senator John McCain over the concept of amnesty, whether he wants to call it comprehensive immigration reform or a pathway for guest workers to remain," he said. "It is amnesty, and I remain against it."

Prediction: Hayworth doesn't run for the Senate and continues as a radio talk-show host.

Still no word on whom the Democrats will nominate. In his last Senate campaign, in 2004, McCain captured 77 percent of the vote against Stuart Starky (D). Many Arizona Democrats felt that McCain would have been seriously vulnerable had Janet Napolitano (D), the popular governor who was term-limited for 2010, run for the Senate, as most people expected her to do. But when Obama asked her to join his Cabinet as homeland security secretary, her Senate ambitions were put on the backburner.

Another observation: I heard from more than a few people that the common Beltway perception of the state's two senators — McCain as media friendly and Jon Kyl (R) as adverse to talking to the press — is 180 degrees different back home. Several reporters told me that McCain and his staff often ignore their requests for interviews or comment, while Kyl and his staff are extremely friendly and cooperative. Who knew?

Apropos of nothing, Nowicki's column later went on to talk about the experience Rep. Jeff Flake (R) had when he played some pickup basketball against Obama on the White House outdoor court. "He's a good player, he really is," said Flake. "He drives to the right. He drives to the left. He does well either way."

But a lot of folks could have told you that.

GOVERNOR: With Napolitano now in Washington, the governorship went to Jan Brewer, the Republican secretary of state (Arizona doesn't have a lt. gov.). Brewer doesn't have a clear shot at the GOP nomination, however; there is no shortage of Republicans interested in the job, including businessman Robert Graham, Paradise Valley Mayor Vernon Parker and ex-state GOP chair John Munger, who announced his candidacy last week. Former Gov. Fife Symington, who had been toying with a comeback despite his resignation in 1997 on ethics charges, decided to back Munger. Also potentially waiting in the wings: Maricopa Co. (Phoenix) Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a nationally-known figure who has employed (shall we say) controversial measures to battle illegal immigration. Arpaio's name has been in the mix before but he never ran.

The likely Democratic nominee is state Attorney General Terry Goddard, who lost to Symington in 1990 and who also was an unsuccessful candidate for his party's nomination in 1994.

By the way, the state has had more of its share of new governors in recent decades because of resignation or death. Jane Dee Hull (R), then-secretary of state, became governor in 1997 after incumbent Symington (R) resigned. Rose Mofford (D) became governor in 1988 following the impeachment and resignation of Evan Mecham (R). Bruce Babbitt (D) became governor in 1978 following the death of Gov. Wesley Bolin (D). And Bolin himself became governor less than five months earlier after Gov. Raul Castro (D) resigned to become ambassador to Argentina.

HOUSE: While November 2010 is a long way away, I don't perceive any change in the House delegation. Republicans are still seething over three seats they lost in the last two round of elections:

1st CD, centered in the north around Flagstaff, which Ann Kirkpatrick (D) took in 2008 following the ethics problems faced by then-Rep. Rick Renzi (R), who decided to retire. In her brief time in office, Kirkpatrick has been unusually attentive to Native American concerns, especially regarding the perennial problems of poverty, unemployment and alcoholism. There are more American Indians in this district than any other in the country.

5th CD, centered in Scottsdale and Tempe, which Harry Mitchell (D) won in 2006 when he ousted J.D. Hayworth (R), whose name was linked to the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and whose anti-immigration positions were seen as widely unpopular in the district

8th CD, centered in the south around Tucson. For years, this seat was comfortably in the hands of GOP Rep. Jim Kolbe. But when Kolbe, a moderate, retired in 2006, a hardline anti-immigration candidate, Randy Graf, won the Republican primary, which enabled moderates from both parties to rally behind Gabrielle Giffords, herself a former Republican. As for the 2006 election to be a fluke, Giffords was easily re-elected last year, despite the much-ballyhooed candidacy of GOP state Senate President Tim Bee.

Despite their GOP leanings, all three seats are expected to remain in Democratic hands.

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