Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) spent more than $20 million on his way to victory over primary rival J.D. Hayworth (R).
McCain captured 59 percent of the vote Tuesday to 29 for Hayworth. Navy veteran Jim Deakin took 11 percent. The Associated Press called the race for McCain shortly after the early returns were in.
But McCain ran a brutally effective campaign against the former congressman, branding him a “huckster” and bringing up his past links to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Two years after winning his party’s presidential nomination, McCain was in danger of losing his Senate seat in a primary challenge.
His bid for the White House had drawn his attention away from Arizona and put a national spotlight on his support for immigration reform — a controversial issue in his home state.
“It was always a long shot, but yes, a shot," Jim Haynes, a Phoenix-based pollster, said of Hayworth's challenge. "He had some opportunities with McCain’s immigration stance during his presidential campaign."
To shore up his right flank, McCain drifted away from some of the issues he championed years ago. He gave a muted response to the recent Supreme Court decision that lifted restrictions he helped pass on campaign spending. He also stopped pushing for immigration reform and instead touted his support for increased security along the border — including a fence he once opposed.
He also went on offense early against Hayworth, who had spent months blasting McCain from the studio of his talk-radio show.
Even before Hayworth officially got into the race, McCain’s campaign was bringing up his ties to Abramoff. The McCain camp challenged Hayworth to disclose the donors to his Freedom in Truth Trust, which he set up in 2008 to pay down legal bills stemming from the Abramoff lobbying scandal.
Hayworth responded by bringing up the Keating Five scandal, but he never used the issue in a TV ad. McCain, meanwhile, saved a TV ad linking Abramoff and Hayworth for the closing stages of the campaign — effectively putting the nail in the coffin of his rival’s effort.
Once Hayworth was in the race, he started soliciting support from Arizona Tea Party groups. “I think it’s vital to have Tea Party support,” Hayworth told The Hill back in March. “A lot of people [are] getting involved for the first time. It’s 1994 to the 10th power.”
Here he had some modest success, eventually getting the backing of more than a dozen local organizations.
But McCain was able to neutralize that momentum by bringing in Sarah Palin, an icon of many Tea Party activists, for two rallies in March.
“It’s a beautiful, grassroots movement. It’s putting government back on the side of people,” Palin said at a rally in Tucson with McCain. “Everybody here today who supports John McCain, we are all part of that Tea Party movement.”
The turning point came in June, when the McCain campaign released two TV spots that used footage from a 2007 infomercial for National Grants Conferences that featured Hayworth telling viewers that government "free money grants" were not "too good to be true."
“It seemed like coinciding with that whole onslaught, all of a sudden you heard nothing from Hayworth,” Haynes said, whose firm conducted polls before and after the ads aired.
Hayworth eventually responded to McCain's infomercial ads with a spot accusing the senator of "lying" about his support for the "amnesty bill," but the damage was already done.
A survey conducted after the infomercial ads went up on the air showed McCain widening his lead on Hayworth. McCain got 64 percent of the test vote, compared to only 19 percent for Hayworth, in a Rocky Mountain Poll by BRC released in July. An April survey by the group showed Hayworth getting 28 percent to 54 percent for McCain.
“The people holding the purse strings saw that McCain was crushing him — Hayworth’s funding dried up,” Haynes said.
Meanwhile, McCain was able to transfer millions from his presidential campaign account to his Senate account, giving him the resources he needed to defeat Hayworth handily.