Why The Political Deck In Arizona Might Be Stacked Against John McCain (CORRECTED)

January 5, 2010 5:20 a.m.

(Late Update: Independents can vote in an Arizona Republican Senate primary. We had been told that Arizona uses a closed primary. In fact, some primaries in Arizona are relatively open while others are closed — and the Senate primary is open, according to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office. We apologize for the error.)

Fourteen months ago, John McCain was his party’s nominee for president. But, now, as the 2010 midterms loom, the senior Senator from Arizona may find himself locked in a primary battle to hold on to his seat — and he could be vulnerable.

Last week, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ) signaled on his radio show that he’s getting closer and closer to a run at McCain’s seat. “We may have moved past due diligence into something that is more than a legal term of art … something called ‘testing the waters.’ So stay tuned on that,” Hayworth said.

Hayworth is popular with the conservative base because he was a leading right-wing voice in Congress on immigration, until he lost his seat in 2006. (Since then, Hayworth has hosted a talk radio show in Arizona.) McCain has traditionally struggled with this voting bloc, largely because of his past moderate positions on illegal immigration.

If McCain faces a primary challenge from Hayworth, McCain could be at a distinct disadvantage because of his state’s election laws — namely the closed primary, which allows only registered Republicans to choose the GOP’s nominee.

“If he [Hayworth] were to throw his hat in the ring, McCain would still be, in my opinion, advantaged just by name recognition and sheer campaign war chest,” said Rodolfo Espino, an assistant political science professor at Arizona State University, in an interview with TPMDC. “But the one thing that would be going against him is we do have a closed primary system.”Voting registration figures in Arizona through last spring show that Republicans, Democrats, and independents and minor parties all take about a third of registered voters. McCain has traditionally had a strong appeal with the state’s independents — but they can’t vote in the GOP primary, leaving a heavily conservative, anti-illegal immigration base to choose the nominee.

Espino still thinks McCain would be the frontrunner, but areas of vulnerability do exist for him. Espino also said that the potential opportunity for Democrats could be missed — if no significant Democrats decide to run.

“If McCain were to be defeated in the Republican primary, I think most people would think that would bode pretty well for any Democratic candidate running for Senate,” he explained. “But because most folks here on the Democratic side are just waiting to figure out whether McCain’s gonna get challenged or not, it’s not clear who’s going to go for the Senate seat.”

However, Hayworth himself could have problems. Minuteman activist Chris Simcox, who was already in the race, told The Arizona Republic that he would not get out of the race if Hayworth gets in, which could split the anti-McCain vote. Simcox told the paper there’s “no way in hell” he’s quitting the race.

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