Door’s open for Salmon run

Door’s open for Salmon run

Rep. Matt SalmonMatthew (Matt) James SalmonArizona voters like Kyl but few think he'll stick around Former Sen. Jon Kyl to replace McCain in Senate Arizona governor faces pressure over McCain replacement MORE has never felt so loved.

Outside conservative groups have been calling, texting and emailing the Arizona Republican on a weekly basis, trying to lure him into a primary against the state’s senior senator, John McCainJohn Sidney McCainArizona Democratic Party will hold vote to censure Sinema The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation Biden's debate performance renews questions of health MORE. Fellow conservative House colleagues are also privately nudging Salmon to run.

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For Tea Party groups, he is seen as perhaps the last, best hope to launch a serious challenge against the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, powerful Armed Services Committee chairman and embodiment of the GOP establishment.

“Salmon’s a dream candidate for us and McCain’s worst electoral nightmare,” said Adam Brandon, CEO of the Tea Party group FreedomWorks.  “I think Salmon has the best shot at it.”

Rep. David SchweikertDavid SchweikertEthics Committee releases new details on allegations against Arizona GOP lawmaker GOP lawmakers call for provisions barring DOD funds for border wall to be dropped Bipartisan resolution aims to protect lawmakers amid heightened threats of violence MORE (R-Ariz.), Salmon’s close friend who had also been looking at the Senate race, is signaling he won’t run. And little-known GOP state Sen. Kelli Ward, who has formed an exploratory committee ahead of a potential challenge, might not have the name ID or fundraising prowess to keep up with McCain. 

Still, several sources predicted Salmon would ultimately take a pass and stay in the House, where he’s become an influential voice of the right. He recently helped found the conservative House Freedom Caucus, which has played a  role in recent spending fights.

But in an interview with The Hill, Salmon said he’s not in a hurry to make a decision.

“I’m not saying that I’m in. I’m not saying that I’m not in,” Salmon said just off the House floor. “I haven’t even said that I’m running for reelection.

“I’m just focused on my job right now,” he added. “I’m not focused on the campaign.”

Salmon and McCain see each other almost weekly during their Arizona delegation breakfast, and their top aides have a friendly working relationship.

While the two haven’t discussed a possible challenge, the senator’s allies have reached out directly to Salmon’s chief of staff, Adam Deguire, on several occasions to find out where the congressman is in his decision-making process, sources said.

Last week, McCain, 78, launched his reelection bid for a sixth Senate term, putting to rest any rumors he might retire after a storied career in politics. 

And while the senator said he hasn’t been focusing on any potential GOP rivals just yet, he’s preparing for a tough campaign, touring the state and raising loads of cash. In the first quarter of 2015, McCain hauled in $1.6 million, bringing his campaign account balance to $3.6 million, aides said.

“Anybody who’s not worried about reelection is foolish,” McCain told The Hill. “In other words, you have to hope for the best, plan for the worst and be ready to engage in a vigorous campaign.

“There’s an old Irish saying: ‘A fight not joined is a fight not enjoyed,’ ” added the former Vietnam prisoner of war.

A popular figure on the right, Salmon could probably delay a decision until the fall, Arizona GOP sources said. They said the congressman might be trying to gauge how much financial backing he can secure before launching a costly campaign against an entrenched incumbent.

Salmon had just under $450,000 in his campaign account at the end of the year, but outside groups pushing him into the race would likely have his back. 

Leaders from Tea Party-aligned groups like FreedomWorks, Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund have been in frequent contact with Salmon. FreedomWorks’s Brandon said every time he sees the Arizona lawmaker, he tells him: “Would love to see you in the Senate.”

Salmon, 57, is an attractive candidate for several reasons to them. He has a 100 percent rating on the FreedomWorks voting scorecard, a record of running successful campaigns and a path to victory.  

“John McCain is a hero. He has done a tremendous service to this country, but if you look at problems we’re facing, we need a new generation of leadership,” Brandon said. 

One conservative House Republican who knows both men said he’d relish a McCain-Salmon primary. The lawmaker pointed to internal polling showing  McCain could be vulnerable and noted Tea Party favorite Chris McDaniel nearly knocked off longtime Mississippi Sen. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranBiden has a lot at stake in first debate The Hill's Morning Report — Trump turns the page back to Mueller probe Trump praises Thad Cochran: 'A real senator with incredible values' MORE in a GOP runoff last year.      

“This would be a very significant challenge to Sen. McCain,” the GOP lawmaker said.

The two go back decades. While McCain was serving in the Senate, Salmon was swept into Congress during the 1994 Republican Revolution led by Newt Gingrich. He would later clash repeatedly with the Speaker, even taking part in a failed coup attempt against Gingrich.

Salmon left Congress in 2000 due to self-imposed term limits. Two years later, he won the GOP nomination for Arizona governor but was narrowly defeated by Democrat Janet Napolitano. A group called “Republicans for Janet,” including some McCain allies, worked against Salmon.

He moved on to a successful lobbying career but decided to run for his old House seat in 2011, when then-Rep. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeFlake donates to Democratic sheriff being challenged by Arpaio in Arizona The Hill's Morning Report - Trump says US-China trade talks to resume, hails potential trade with Japan, UK Joe Arpaio to run for Maricopa County sheriff in 2020  MORE (R-Ariz.) jumped into the Senate race. Both McCain and outgoing Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) backed Salmon’s GOP primary opponent, former state House Speaker Kirk Adams, but Salmon prevailed against the establishment forces.

McCain allies don’t expect Salmon to repeat that performance in a Senate race. They point to former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.), whom McCain pummeled in 2010. McCain burned through $22 million in that election. Much of that was transferred from his failed 2008 presidential bid — a resource he wouldn’t have this time around.

“McCain runs campaigns well, and he has a conservative record. I just think people will look and see what J.D. Hayworth tried — he didn’t come anywhere close,” Flake told The Hill in an interview.

Flake suggested it might be politically savvy for Salmon to keep fanning speculation of a Senate run. In 2002, there was chatter that Flake himself might launch a challenge against McCain.

“Sometimes you let it run just to build up your name ID,” Flake said. “But then I looked at the polling and said, ‘After a lot of self-reflection, I realize I would get whipped.’ ”