By Scott Wong and Cameron Joseph - 01-28-15 06:00 AM EST
A couple of Tea Party lawmakers are strongly considering challenging Sen. John McCain in 2016, but they won’t both get in the race.
Arizona GOP Reps. Matt Salmon and David Schweikert, who are “best friends” on Capitol Hill, have spent recent weeks mulling over the possibility with family members, analyzing polling and keeping tabs on McCain, as he makes moves toward running for a sixth Senate term.
But if one decides to take a shot against the state’s entrenched senior senator and 2008 Republican presidential nominee, the other won’t.
“If Matt came to me and said he wants to pull the trigger, it would mean we would probably offer to chair his committee,” Schweikert told The Hill in an interview. “Nothing even close to that [has happened]. Seriously, not even that first step.”
Salmon has a larger war chest than Schweikert. As of Nov. 24, 2014, Salmon had $545,000 cash on hand, while Schweikert only had $66,000. McCain, meanwhile, had $1.54 million in his campaign coffers as of Sept. 30, 2014.
Salmon and Schweikert would be among the best positioned and best known of the slew of possible primary challengers expected to run against McCain — a top target of conservative activists who view him as too moderate on issues such as immigration and taxes.
McCain was met with a mix of boos, curses and cheers, when he took the stage last weekend at the Arizona Republican Party’s annual meeting, and a dozen activists turned their back on the senator. But that was nicer treatment than what McCain experienced at the same meeting a year earlier, when local activists and precinct committeemen voted to censure the 78-year-old Arizona senator.
McCain has been raising campaign cash, traveling the state and aggressively moving to purge conservative foes from the state party — part of the reason for the jeers last weekend.
“As he’s said, Sen. McCain is strongly leaning toward running for reelection,” said his top spokesman, Brian Rogers. “In the meantime, he’s taking all the necessary steps to be in the strongest position possible when he makes a final decision.”
McCain has long been at odds with the two congressmen — both beat primary opponents he endorsed to win their House seats.
Salmon downplayed any talk of taking on the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee chairman and revered Vietnam War POW. “I’m just happy to be here and do my job,” Salmon said in a recent interview at the House and Senate GOP retreat in Hershey, Pa. “I’m happy to be in the office I’m in.”
But sources close to Salmon say he’s taking a close look at the Senate seat, pointing to a Maricopa County Republican Party meeting earlier this month where Salmon bested McCain by a 2-1 ratio in an informal Senate straw poll.
Schweikert acknowledged that he polled the Senate race last year. But of the two congressmen, Schweikert appears less likely to mount a challenge.
In 2012, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his allies booted Schweikert off the influential Financial Services Committee, after he voted against leadership one too many times. But in the fall, Schweikert won back his seat on the panel, a post that he enjoys and brings him hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from the financial sector.
Also, right after the new year, Schweikert and his wife, Joyce, spent an entire day discussing the idea of a Senate bid. “She’s not thrilled with the idea,” he quipped.
“Part of it is: Are you willing to stop the work you’re doing for almost two years to campaign and raise money and raise money and campaign,” said Schweikert, a former state lawmaker, who pointed out he’s defeated two incumbents before, beating Rep. Harry Mitchell (D-Ariz.) in 2010 and Rep. Ben Quayle (R-Ariz.) in 2012, when their districts were merged during redistricting.
McCain’s allies have already been looking to retake control of a party that’s long been hostile to him, bumping libertarian and Tea Party activists out of official party roles and off the state central committee.
The moves helped McCain re-establish influence within the party and likely hurt his opponents’ organizational strength. But they have also infuriated some of the activists who were already hostile toward him.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close friend of McCain’s, was supposed to have a tough 2014 primary. But he raised huge sums and worked the state hard, scaring off any serious opponents. He predicts McCain will be equally prepared.
“John is doing all the right things; he’s getting financially ready, and here’s the message: The country and Arizona need John McCain ... now more than ever. Look at the world, look how right John’s been about the threats we face,” Graham told The Hill. “And having him as chairman of the Armed Services Committee would do the country a great service.”
If either Schweikert or Salmon run against McCain, there’s a good chance Tea Party groups would get involved.
The Club for Growth and other national conservative groups have long supported both House legislators, helping them win their early primaries over McCain-backed candidates. The Club also has a long history of criticizing McCain.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee could help McCain if he faces a tough primary challenge. Earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told The Washington Post that his members shouldn’t be “afraid” of a primary: “We will win all the primaries. We did it in ’14. We will do it in ’16.”
Most conservative groups didn’t end up targeting McCain in 2010, but his primary foe, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.), proved early on he was a deeply flawed candidate.
“Either would be a strong candidate against McCain,” said one national conservative strategist. “Everybody knows J.D. Hayworth was a terrible candidate who couldn’t attract support. Matt Salmon and David Schweikert both have strong support from grassroots groups in Arizona and from conservative groups in D.C.”