McCain's team quietly purging Arizona GOP of tea-party foes before 2016 reelection bid

I considered saving this for tomorrow night, just to send you off into 2015 on the most depressing, eeyorishness note possible. But then I reconsidered.

For maximum eeyorishness, I should really end the year with a “Romney 2016” post instead, no?

Team McCain’s goal? Unseat conservative activists who hold obscure, but influential, local party offices.

Under the byzantine rules of Arizona Republican Party politics, these elected officials, known as precinct committeemen, vote for local party chairmen. The chairmen, in turn, determine how state and local GOP funds are spent, which candidates are promoted in an election year, and which political issues are highlighted — all matters of central concern for McCain heading into 2016, when the threat of a primary looms.

Prior to Aug. 26, when the races for the party offices were held, the vast majority of the 3,925 precinct slots were filled by people McCain’s team considered opponents. Now, after an influx of candidates were recruited by the senator’s allies, around 40 percent of those offices — 1,531 to be exact — will be held by people McCain’s team regards as friendly. They will have the power to vote down hostile Republican chairmen in each of their respective localities…

McCain advisers believe their campaign to alter the state GOP will strengthen his hand in 2016; a more sympathetic Arizona Republican Party, they reason, will be less likely to lodge a censure resolution against him and rally activist support for any would-be primary opponents.

Control the committeemen and you control the local chairmen. Control the local chairmen and you control the party, at least enough to keep it from being a thorn in your side when you suddenly revert to your embarrassingly phony once-every-six-years “build the dang fence” border hawkishness. If any of this seems familiar, it should: Orrin Hatch used a similar tactic two years ago to cruise to reelection in Utah. Utah was the very first state to oust a Republican Senate incumbent in favor of a tea partier when GOP delegates bounced Bob Bennett in 2010 and replaced him with Mike Lee. Hatch, a fellow establishment dinosaur, feared the same would happen to him; an early internal poll of the delegates who defeated Bennett showed similarly low levels of support for Hatch. So Hatch huddled with his team and came up with a plan — instead of trying to win over the delegates, which was unlikely given the ideological rift between them, he would try to replace them. He recruited thousands of people to run as delegates and then thousands more to turn out at their local precincts on election night and vote for those delegates. Result: Not only did Hatch comfortably win reelection in 2012, he came within less than a point of winning the 60 percent of delegates he would have needed to bypass a primary altogether and win his party’s nomination by de facto acclamation. That was a true Empire Strikes Back moment for establishmentarians. No wonder McCain wants to emulate it.

In fact, apart from Bennett and Dick Lugar, who took for granted how loyal Indiana Republicans would be to him in a primary and didn’t campaign hard early against Richard Mourdock, GOP Senate incumbents have been mostly (and increasingly) successful against tea partiers. It’s not always easy: Pat Roberts failed to break 50 percent in the primary earlier this year against three opponents and a somnambulant Thad Cochran barely held on against Chris McDaniel, and only thanks to help from black Democrats. Then again, sometimes it’s been much easier than you’d expect. Hatch’s victory is one striking example; another is Lindsey Graham’s easy reelection in South Carolina earlier this year, avoiding a runoff in the primary against six challengers by taking 56 percent of the vote. How’d he do it? I wrote about it back in April but the short version is smart organization and plenty of political favors to locals, the same blueprint McCain is using and the same blueprint that all incumbents will use in years to come. We may have already reached the point in the young life of the tea party where it’s next to impossible for the movement to knock off a senator who expects a challenge and begins preparing for it early. There won’t be any more Bennetts or Lugars who are caught off guard by the threat, and there won’t be any more Cochrans allowed to dodder their way to near-defeat before the national party quietly intervenes with financial and organizational support. The next incumbent the tea party ousts will need to be hobbled in some other way, perhaps through scandal, to give the movement an opening with voters. It’s hard to beat someone with lots of friends in Washington and lots of money from the donor class when they can see you coming.

And it’ll be especially hard in 2016. There are some incumbents, like, say, Kelly Ayotte, whom righties ideally might challenge but who’ll be given a break simply because the national map is so foreboding for the GOP. Fully 24 Republicans are up for reelection compared to just 10 Democrats and the fact that it’s a presidential election year means a bluer electorate overall. Do you want to try to knock off Ayotte in a purple state like New Hampshire when it might very well mean an extra seat for Democrats, imperiling the GOP’s Senate majority? Do you want to target Mark Kirk in the blue state of Illinois? How about Lisa Murkowski in Alaska, a red state but one where Democrat Mark Begich lost by just two points in his own reelection bid earlier this year? One of the reasons tea partiers are eager to beat McCain, I think, is because Arizona may well be the only state where a Republican sees a serious primary challenge. Go hard at him. But don’t stray too far from eeyorishness about your chances.