Conservatives hoping to knock Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) out of office are gearing up for a fight this cycle, although the Republican lawmaker has yet to announce whether he’ll step into the ring himself.
The Republican senator, who ran and lost as the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, has repeatedly stated in media interviews that he is "most likely" going to seek a sixth term, although he has stopped short of confirming his candidacy.
"I still think I have a lot to do," McCain told the Associated Press last month. "I’m most likely going to run for re-election."
McCain reported $2 million in his campaign coffers at the end of 2014, after adding $400,000 to his account in the final three months of last year.
But McCain is expected to face at least one serious Republican primary challenger — potentially a House lawmaker, like Rep. David Schweikert or Rep. Matt Salmon — as Cardinal State conservatives look to oust the 78-year-old lawmaker over their displeasure with his record, including his decision to sponsor immigration reform legislation.
The state of the Republican race could determine how seriously Democrats decide to contest the seat. Democrats believe the state may slowly be trending in their direction but see McCain as formidable, particularly if he doesn’t have to sweat a GOP primary. But if McCain decides to retire, or if a bloody Republican battle looms, Arizona would move higher up national Democrats’ priority list, as they look to flip the five seats they need to retake control of the Senate.
Despite failed attempts to oust GOP senators in primary contests in the 2014 cycle, third-party conservative groups, including the Club for Growth and the Tea Party Express, have suggested they are ready to re-enter the fray this cycle and back a serious competitor to McCain.
At a Christian Science Monitor breakfast earlier this month, Club for Growth President David McIntosh acknowledged that his group will watch the race "carefully" and plans to weigh McCain’s performance on its annual scorecard.
Tea Party Express Executive Director Taylor Budowich said his organization will await McCain’s official entry into the race, as well as his would-be competitors, before determining whether it will back a challenger.
"We’re still waiting to see what argument the senator will make. Until we hear his argument, and then any potential challenger, it would be too early to really get involved or to even know which way we’re going with it," Budowich said.
Budowich also predicted that while McCain is not the organization’s No. 1 target for defeat this cycle — that remains Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — the Arizona race could be among the most competitive GOP primaries next year.
"There’s all the makings of a strong primary battle. There’s grass-roots frustration with the senator, and there’s a crop of credible candidates in the wings. If they got in, they could make competitive statewide candidates," Budowich said.
State Sen. Kelli Ward (R), a tea party activist, announced Sunday that she is also considering a bid, telling The Arizona Republic that: "I have been approached by many Arizonans who have asked me to throw my hat into the ring and run for the U.S. Senate. People have come to know me by my principled conservative voting record and my interactive communication style, which leads them to trust that I would continue to represent Arizona well, regardless of the office."
But while conservatives would like to eject McCain from office, the Arizona lawmaker has prevailed against past efforts, including former Rep. J.D. Hayworth’s (R) primary challenge in 2010.
"We have the impression these days that challenges to incumbent senators in the primary can be successful, but they’re still a rarity," said Barbara Norrander, a professor at the University of Arizona’s School of Government and Public Policy. "Incumbents usually can raise more money for the campaign, they are familiar to the voters, and as incumbents, they have worked with different groups in the state and have a lot of connections that way."
Although Salmon and Schweikert would have a head start on fundraising, as opposed to a state-level candidate like Ward, only Salmon reported significant funds in his campaign account at the end of last year with $447,000 in the bank.
Schweikert, who told the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call last week he is "leaning against" a Senate bid, reported $37,000 in his main campaign account in late December. Schweikert also reported a second campaign committee that is closed but that owes about $343,000 in personal loans to the lawmaker dating to 2007.
Norrander noted that while McCain was censured by the state Republican Party in 2014 — the party condemned the senator for his bipartisan work with Democrats, including immigration reform, and called his record "disastrous and harmful" — he remains well-aligned with GOP voters.
"He’s pretty conservative on lots of issues — traditional economic issues and foreign policy issues — so it’s not like he’s that far away from the Republican Party. There’s a couple of issues where he’s a little distinctive, but on a whole host of issues, he’s right in the mainstream of the Republican Party," she said.
But a Public Policy Polling survey conducted in March 2014 demonstrated that McCain is unpopular with voters of all political stripes, earning negative ratings from Republicans, Democrats and independents.
That survey also found McCain trailing in single digits against potential Democratic nominees, including former Gov. Janet Napolitano, who is currently serving as president of the University of California System; failed 2012 Democratic Senate nominee Richard Carmona; and former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D), who left office in 2012 to focus on her recovery after she was injured in a 2011 shooting.
Still, should McCain opt to seek another term, it remains to be seen whether Democrats would wade into the race.
While the party has proved it can win statewide elections — Napolitano narrowly won her first gubernatorial bid against Salmon in 2002 and then won re-election in 2006 — Democrats have not held a Senate seat in the state since 1994, when then-Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) retired. McCain’s seat was last held by a Democrat in 1968, when then-Sen. Carl Hayden (D) retired.
"It is a pretty red state — although occasionally a Democrat does win in a statewide election. Democrats often have a hard time recruiting candidates to run in a statewide races," Norrander said.
Second-term Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D), who represents a swing district in the suburbs of Phoenix, earned headlines earlier this month when she formed a leadership political action committee, stirring suggestions that she is mulling a challenge to McCain. Sinema, who is four decades younger than McCain, thus far has been silent on the question.