McCain's Republican Enemies in His Home State

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Gary Williams / Getty

The Minutemen Civil Defense Corps, a group devoted to a tough stance on border security, protests outside the office of John McCain

Yes, John McCain leads Barack Obama by an average of 12 points in the most recent polls from his home state of Arizona.

But as Sarah Palin's post-convention bounce dissipates, an ongoing conservative revolt in Arizona has been gaining steam. It probably won't cost McCain the state. But 26 years after the Republican was sent to Congress from Arizona, the schism within the state GOP points to lingering doubts that the right wing — both inside and outside Arizona — has about McCain's motives, methods and temperament. And in an unusually brutal state primary season that ended Sept. 2, suspicion about the Republican nominee led the conservative grass roots to air accusations of persecution and dirty politics.

The main fault line is a familiar one: illegal immigration. McCain and his allies in Arizona, including most of the state's congressional delegation (though it unanimously voted Monday against the Wall Street bailout plan pushed by McCain) and many of the state's leading business interests, favor a dual approach combining enforcement and a path to citizenship. The rambunctious populist wing of the state GOP, led in part by state representative Russell Pearce from Mesa, favors a much tougher stance of deportations first and foremost.

"There's a civil war going on in the Republican Party here," says David Berman, a professor emeritus with Arizona State University and a longtime observer of Arizona politics. "The division has severed off the business people from the social conservatives." Berman says that McCain's allies fought Pearce fiercely in the GOP primary for an open state senate seat, going so far as hiring hard-hitting political consultant Nathan Sproul to hammer away at Pearce. "They hired one of the sleaziest operators around," says Berman, "who used to only do this thing to Democrats."

Mac Magruder, a McDonald's franchiser who is a leading financial and political backer of McCain's comprehensive immigration reform approach, defends Sproul's involvement in the race, calling Pearce part of the "David Duke wing of the party" and saying that Sproul showed "courage" in taking on the task of trying to unseat Pearce.

It was, ultimately, a losing fight: Pearce won the primary with almost 70% of the vote in the very conservative Mesa senate district, and he is heavily favored to win the general election. But just as bitter has been the fight for the smaller prizes of key positions within the local branches of the state Republican Party.

One of those positions belongs to district chairman Rob Haney, a longtime activist who says that what started as policy differences with McCain and his allies has turned over the years into personal vendettas. In 2005, Haney introduced a resolution in the Maricopa County party that censured McCain "for a lot of things he had done that would take our freedoms away," as Haney puts it. Back then Haney wasn't focused on immigration but campaign finance reform, another McCain priority that was anathema to bedrock conservatives. Haney's resolution passed, and that, he says, is when McCain and his allies really began to take aim at the state's conservative grass roots.

"After the censure, he made it a big issue to shut down whoever disagrees with him," says Haney. Specifically, the McCain camp recruited former Arizona governor J. Fife Symington III to run for Haney's party position the next year. Haney was incredulous. "They recruited a former governor?" he says. "To run as one of 30 chairmen in the state? The risk he took just brings into question his level-headedness, I guess."

The move angered the grass roots even more, and they handed Symington a humiliating defeat. Haney won again in 2008, and estimates that after this primary, his faction still has the power in the state GOP structure. "We have a right to speak up if we feel our leaders are abandoning principles; we have a right to say no to our leaders. He's telling us to shut up," says Haney.

Another conservative activist, who works in state government and worries that using his name will cost him his job, charges that McCain has gone out of his way to disrespect the conservative grass roots. Ahead of the 2004 Republican National Convention, he says, Senator McCain personally called several conservative delegates to try to rescind their invitations to the New York City gathering. The source says, "He wanted his own hand-picked people to go to the convention, to be the bestower," even though the grass-roots party members had done most of the grunt work in organizing and mobilizing the state GOP.

Of course, except for rare exceptions, it's not McCain or even his aides who are calling the shots in the war against the conservative grass roots. But after decades as a leader in the state, McCain has powerful allies and former staffers who run much of the GOP establishment, from the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce (which used to be run by his son Andy McCain) to the state house and senate, where moderate Republicans like outgoing senate president Tim Bee and Tucson representative Pete Hershberger have been able to push through much of their agenda by working with Democrats.

McCain allies characterize this grass-roots wing of the party as slightly unhinged. Former Phoenix mayor Skip Rimsza likes to call the anti-McCain conservatives "CAVE" men (Citizens Against Virtually Everything). Magruder wrote me an e-mail touting his conservative credentials and support of tough border enforcement and insisting that "the hard-line crowd is irrational. They want to incite people to fear, and that is a dangerous thing to watch." Says ASU's Berman: "These guys are not easy to please. These guys were even after [conservative icon Barry] Goldwater for a while. They wanted to strip his name off party headquarters. You really have to toe the line."

Nevertheless, in a tight presidential race, McCain would do well to try to soothe the anger of activists both at home and nationwide, particularly on border issues. As Haney says of himself and others around the country for whom illegal immigration is the top concern, "We're conservatives first and Republicans second."

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