By Alexander Bolton - 09/25/14 06:00 AM EDT
Sen. John McCainJohn McCainNBC's Lester Holt emerges from debate bruised and partisan Pundits react: Clinton won first debate Overnight Defense: Debate night is here | Senate sets vote on 9/11 veto override | Kerry, McCain spar over Syria MORE (R-Ariz.) has begun to have serious conversations with state officials and local powerbrokers about running for a sixth term in the Senate.
The longtime Republican senator is expected to face a tougher challenger and would be a major target for Tea Party groups, given his support for a Senate immigration bill granting a path to citizenship for workers living in the U.S. illegally.
But more recently, McCain has given every indication that he wants to stay in the upper chamber, even after three decades as a senator.
“I’m leaning toward it,” McCain told The Hill when asked about running for reelection.
“I’m doing all the things necessary to do so,” McCain says of a reelection bid. “A good fundraising quarter. A lot of meetings and talking to a lot of people in the state, the usual preparations in the state.”
The 2008 GOP presidential candidate met Friday in Phoenix with “key supporters” to plan his reelection race, a McCain aide said.
He says whether Republicans win a Senate majority in November won’t “particularly” make a difference in his decision.
McCain faced a primary challenger in 2010, just two years after Barack ObamaBarack ObamaSetting the record straight on Crimea Buzz builds on Becerra’s future plans Green Party nominee escorted off debate premises MORE defeated him for the White House.
He easily fought off former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, defeating him by 25 points after pouring $21 million into the race.
But Hayworth was seen by many as a weak candidate, and McCain could face a much tougher challenger in 2016.
Rep. David SchweikertDavid SchweikertThe Hill's 12:30 Report Former GOP congressman lobbying for electric cars Senate races heating up MORE (R-Ariz.) is flirting with a run against McCain. He is hosting a breakfast Thursday in Scottsdale for local Republican candidates, including Mark Brnovich, the candidate for state attorney general.
A Citizens United Political Victory Fund poll in April showed that only 29 percent of likely GOP primary voters said they wanted to reelect McCain. Sixty-four percent said they wanted to see someone else in the Senate.
The Citizens United poll showed Schweikert leading McCain 40 percent to 34 percent among likely Republican voters in a hypothetical match-up. Rep. Matt SalmonMatt SalmonHouse GOP talks 'minibuses,' moves toward Senate in spending fight Gloom sets in for GOP LGBT fight dooms spending bill on House floor MORE (R-Ariz.) led the longtime senator 48 percent to 30 percent in the same survey.
A March poll by Public Policy Polling showed only 30 percent of Arizonans approved of the Arizona senator's job performance, while 54 percent disapproved.
McCain has also battled his state’s Republican Party, which censured him at the beginning of the year for compiling a congressional record it characterized as “disastrous and harmful.”
Tea Party groups promise to go after McCain if he seeks another term.
“Speaking for myself and every other Republican I know and every other Tea Party person I know, we’re sick to death of him, and we will move,” said Wes Harris, founder of the Original North Phoenix Tea Party, the first Tea Party group established in Phoenix.
Harris said McCain won handily in 2010 because Hayworth was a flawed candidate weighed down with too much “baggage” because he worked as a lobbyist after serving in Congress.
Arguing that an upset in 2016 is possible, he pointed to the surprise defeat of Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal in the August Republican primary. He lost to Diane Douglas, a relatively unknown conservative challenger.
Still, the veteran senator would have many advantages over a primary challenger.
He reported $1.7 million in his campaign fund at the end of June after raising $592,000 in the second quarter.
“They’d have to come out with a very credible candidate to compete with him, someone who could raise a lot of campaign funds,” said Barbara Norrander, a professor of political science at the University of Arizona
Schweikert has only $58,000 in campaign cash, while Salmon reported $532,000. Rep. Trent Franks, another Republican House member sometimes mentioned as an opponent, reported $33,000 to the Federal Election Commission.
McCain's critics have panned the Senate immigration bill he authored as “amnesty,” and it would be a critical issue in his race. In 2010, He did a TV ad from the fence at the border that cast the senator as a staunch defender of border security.
Former Sen. Jon Kyl, a longtime Republican colleague, said McCain would likely draw a challenger but predicted he would prevail.
He said the state party make-up next year will be different from the one that censured McCain in January.
“I think you’ll see a different party make-up after the primary election. There will be a new group of precinct committeemen. I don’t think you’ll see many of the same old faces,” he said.
The senator is also helped by Arizona’s election rules, which allow independents, long a mainstay of his base, to vote in the GOP primary.
Norrander said McCain might be able to play the immigration reform bill to his advantage by making the case to voters that he has a concrete plan for what to do with millions of illegal residents.
“We have lots of attacks going on that people are too soft on the border, but if it’s a plan that passes and can be described as a long-term solution, it’s something he can run on,” she said. “If it’s not in place, then it’s a little more difficult.”
Kyl said voters will value McCain’s foreign policy expertise.
“If you look at Congress today there are very few if any experts in national security matters beyond John McCain,” he said. “A lot of people in this country and a lot of people in Arizona see the importance of adult experience in international affairs.”