Something is happening to the Republican Party, I just don't know exactly what.
There is an energy out there, no question. We saw it last year with the Tea Party activists and the victories in New Jersey and Virginia. The Big Mo continued last month in Massachusetts. Blame it on President Obama, or blame it on a health-care proposal that its opponents have done a better job defining than its supporters. Blame it on anything you wish. But it's real.
And we saw that energy last week at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference here in Washington.
But now it seems to be coalescing behind a different kind of Republican. In talking about the victories of Chris Christie (NJ), Bob McDonnell (VA) and Scott Brown (MA), two things are indisputable: none of the three ran on a hard-right platform, and none had serious obstacles in their own party.
It's different with this latest round of party heroes-in-waiting — think Marco Rubio or Chuck DeVore or Rand Paul. They are all far more conservative . But more important, many are fighting their own party's establishment as much they are the Democrats. Maybe even more so. The reception Rubio got last Thursday at CPAC was deafening ... and I suspect that what played a major role in the attendees' response was their distaste for Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a conservative in most years but somehow a RINO in 2010.
The 1964 Republican convention in San Francisco defined the moment where conservatives wrested control of the party from the moderates. When you think of the most emotional moment of that convention, and perhaps the one most satisfying to the Right, it may not have been the actual roll call vote that nominated Barry Goldwater on the first ballot. It was the booing of Nelson Rockefeller — a Goldwater foe, yes, but a fellow Republican — who decided to take on the John Birch Society in the same breath he criticized the Communist Party.
Goldwater was perhaps destined to go down to an overwhelming defeat to President Lyndon Johnson that year — no Republican was going to win in a year where everyone was mourning the assassination of President Kennedy — but to a person in the conservative movement, the '64 convention was a triumph, not a failure.
So perhaps even if Rubio or DeVore (CA) or Paul (KY) were to win their primaries but lose in November, conservatives would still say their course of action was correct. As Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) said at CPAC, he'd rather have 30 conservative true believers in the Senate than 60 of his own party who stood for nothing.
And that takes us to John McCain.
Despite a conservative voting record — on most issues — many conservatives simply don't trust him. They don't like his positions on campaign finance, on immigration, on climate change. They certainly didn't like it when, during his bid for the presidential nomination in 2000 against George W. Bush, he openly courted the media (his "base," as he likes to say). The relationship between the press and McCain that year was a lovefest, a fact that didn't go well with those who always saw the media as liberal and in the pocket of the Democratic Party.
After Bush's election, these same conservatives didn't like McCain's votes against the president's tax cuts, his toying with running as John Kerry's VP in '04, his dispute with Bush & Cheney over the use of torture, or his participation in the Gang of 14 that successfully put off then-Majority Leader Bill Frist's desire to use the "nuclear option" to end the Democrats' ability to use filibusters to block Bush's court picks.
There has been hints now and then that one of the state's conservative House members, perhaps Jeff Flake, would challenge McCain in the primary. But McCain ran unopposed in the primary in both 1998 and 2004.
Not this time.
Since his unsuccessful bid for the White House in 2008, he has become a severe critic of the man who beat him. But that apparently hasn't mollified conservatives who have long since tired of him. 2010 is payback time.
And the payback, as some on the Right hope, is J.D. Hayworth.
Hayworth, a defeated-six-term-congressman-turned-radio-show-host, said his issue with McCain is what he called the senator's position of supporting amnesty for non-citizen guest workers. He says McCain is a good man but one who's been around too long. McCain stands not for Straight Talk, Hayworth says, but Double Talk. Hayworth is wooing anti-illegal immigration activists, and has recently received the endorsement of Chris Simcox, founder of Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, who was going nowhere in his own bid against McCain.
The aforementioned Jim DeMint says he's staying neutral in the race, a victory of sorts for the challenger.
One potential problem: Hayworth is a flawed candidate. He was defeated for re-election in 2006, in large part because of his strong connections to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Voters had also tired of Hayworth's anti-immigration tirades, which many Republicans insist is self-defeating. Whit Ayres, a GOP consultant, was quoted in Sunday's Washington Post as saying, "If Republicans don't do better among Hispanics, we're not going to be talking about how to get Florida back in the Republican column, we're going to be talking about how not to lose Texas." Ed Gillespie, a former RNC chair who was involved in last year's gov race in Virginia, said Bob McDonnell reached out to Hispanics, "instead of indulging in the anti-immigration rhetoric of past Republican campaigns."
But we're talking about a Republican primary electorate here, not a November general election, and underestimating Hayworth would be a huge mistake. Whether or not immigrant bashing as a long-term strategy is smart for the GOP, a combination of anti-immigrant activists, Tea Party supporters and long-time McCain foes could prove a potent combination.
McCain knows he's being targeted. He has raised a ton of money, began building up his county organizations, and has secured the endorsements of Scott Brown, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney and Dick Armey, a godfather to many Tea Party backers. He also has something like a 22-point lead over Hayworth in a recent poll.
Which is about the size of the lead Charlie Crist once had over Marco Rubio.
The primary is Aug. 24.