Tea Party groups split on backing John McCain’s Republican primary opponent

Alex Pappas Political Reporter
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Sen. John McCain’s Republican primary opponent may have spoken at Tea Party rallies, but that doesn’t mean he automatically has the support of the conservative grassroots groups in his quest to unseat the 2008 Republican presidential candidate.

Former Rep. J.D. Hayworth left his Phoenix talk radio show last week to challenge McCain for the Republican nomination to be Arizona’s senator. Even though Hayworth will likely market himself as the conservative alternative in the race — and draw some Tea Party supporters angry with McCain — not all groups are immediately putting their full resources towards him.

On Monday, when Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks released their list of more than 65 congressional races across the country with candidates they either support or want defeated, the Arizona Senate race was noticeably absent.

Matt Kibbe, president and chief executive of FreedomWorks in Washington, D.C., said the group isn’t targeting McCain because there are “some places where you can sort of make that difference and other places where you stay out.”

“John McCain has stepped up on health care and even cap and trade, which he has a very mixed history on. He’s … stepped up, and I think people respect that,” Kibbe said.

Lisa Miller of Alexandria, Va., who formed Tea Party WDC, said she’s unsure whether Tea Party groups will back Hayworth because he “waited for a fairly long time period before jumping in” the race.

“[McCain] would be a real challenge to overcome, but I don’t think it’s impossible,” she said of Hayworth’s chances.

Miller, who said she’d like to see McCain challenged, said she sent Hayworth, who was a sportscaster before turning to politics, an email telling him to “either declare or let someone else step forward.”

“We don’t want to allow any incumbent that has voted for tax and spending to go unchallenged on a primary level. Not a one. And that includes not only our party, but the Democratic Party,” Miller said.

Mark Meckler, national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, said “the movement is there” for Hayworth, who came into Congress with the 1994 Republican Revolution and was defeated for re-election in 2006.

“Lots of people know who J.D. is, and I think he speaks to the movement,” he said.

Meckler said “people are challenging the establishment because they don’t like the way the establishment candidates have behaved.”

Among issues that Hayworth and Arizona Tea Party groups have criticized McCain for is his stance on immigration and support for a guest worker program.

“John McCain, I know, is behaving in a way that a lot people who consider themselves Republicans or conservatives don’t like,” Meckler said. “And you know, he’s the maverick. And hey — we like that — we’re mavericks too. But a lot of people don’t like his voting record.”

Joni Dahlstrom, president of Verde Valley Republican Women Federated and state coordinator for last April’s tea party events in Arizona, said that she’s not completely convinced that Hayworth is the Tea Party’s candidate of choice yet. She said Hayworth “better get on it” if he’s serious about a challenge. Dahlstrom also said she’s concerned that Hayworth “is another establishment guy, so it doesn’t really matter anyway.”

“I will not vote for or support McCain,” Dahlstrom said. “I’ll write in my dog first.”

Representatives for McCain did not immediately return a reporter’s request for comment.

Tapping into Tea Party resentment of McCain is something the campaign will have to do, Hayworth spokesman Jason Rose said.

“There is no question when you look at intensity of the support, J.D. Hayworth has it, Senator McCain does not,” he said.

In comparing Hayworth to McCain, Rose said “their records on taxes are black and white,” as “J.D. Hayworth has been a consistent conservative on reducing taxes and Senator McCain has famously flipped-flopped.”

Counting on Tea Party support, Rose said, factored into convincing Hayworth to jump into the race.

“We’re going to actively seek it, we hope for it, we want to earn their support, earn their passion…. and they will absolutely have a seat at the table and be critical to success in Arizona.”