Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) will be seeking his sixth term in 2016, but first he has to win renomination. As things stand, state Sen. Kelli Ward (R) and McCain’s other primary opponents don’t greatly endanger the incumbent’s standing. But a couple members of the state’s U.S. House delegation, Reps. Matt Salmon (R, AZ-5) and David Schweikert (R, AZ-6), have been considering runs against McCain. While Salmon announced on Tuesday that he wouldn’t take on McCain, Schweikert continues to examine his options. Should Schweikert enter the Senate race, he would pose a credible threat to McCain: Unlike Ward, Schweikert would probably attract serious support from outside conservative groups, who loath McCain. While we don’t yet think the incumbent is in real primary peril, it’s not impossible to imagine McCain running into trouble if Schweickert challenges him.
Demonstrating continued interest in the race, Schweikert took a shot at McCain this past weekend, saying that the poorly-rated incumbent can’t beat Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D, AZ-1) in November 2016. Kirkpatrick, the likely Democratic nominee, is one of just five House Democrats who holds a seat won by Mitt Romney in 2012. McCain’s favorability has been weak for years, and he had to fend off an attack from his right flank by former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R) in the 2010 Senate primary.
McCain’s situation reminds us of the last election won by Barry Goldwater (R), whose seat McCain now holds. The 1964 Republican presidential nominee originally won election to Arizona’s Class 1 Senate seat in 1952, won reelection in 1958, but then didn’t seek reelection in 1964 while running for president. Four years later, seven-term Sen. Carl Hayden (D) decided to retire, and Goldwater won the open-seat race to fill the state’s Class 3 Senate post. He won reelection in 1974 and 1980, but in the case of the latter — a very Republican cycle that saw the GOP gain 12 net seats as Ronald Reagan decisively defeated Jimmy Carter — Goldwater won a fifth nonconsecutive term by just one percentage point over his Democratic opponent. Goldwater evidently got the message and didn’t seek reelection in 1986 (at the age of 77), opening the way for then-Rep. McCain.
Having survived a significant primary challenge in 2010, can McCain weather another one? And if he does, will he still be able to defeat Kirkpatrick? McCain is probably more likely than not to manage both, but should he lose renomination, the state of the race would be less certain. With that in mind, we’re moving Arizona from Likely Republican to Leans Republican. While the Senate will probably be won or lost in presidential swing states next year, it would not be a complete shock if Republicans ultimately had to work very hard to hold onto this seat.