Fresh from a humbling loss in last year’s presidential election, Sen. John McCain is working behind-the-scenes to reshape the Republican Party in his own center-right image.
McCain is recruiting candidates, raising money for them and hitting the campaign trail on their behalf. He’s taken sides in competitive House, Senate and gubernatorial primaries and introduced his preferred candidates to his top donors.
It’s all part of an approach that is at odds with most other recent failed presidential nominees, whose immediate response to defeat was to retreat from the electoral arena. But those familiar with McCain’s thinking say he has expressed serious concern about the direction of the party and is actively seeking out and supporting candidates who can broaden the party’s reach.
In McCain’s case, that means backing conservative pragmatists and moderates.
“I think he’s endorsed people with center-right politics because he has an understanding that the party is in trouble with certain demographics and wants to have a tone that would allow us to grow,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who is McCain’s closest friend and ally in the Senate.
“At a time when our party is struggling and has a lot of shrill voices and aggressive voices, he’s one that can expand our party,” said John Weaver, a longtime McCain friend and strategist.
“John remains the titular head of the Republican Party and he will be until there’s a new nominee,” he said. “Most of the people that ran and lost you never heard from again,” he said. “He’s not going to be like Ed Muskie or Hubert Humphrey.”
“The key quote was, ‘Service in the House in the minority is worth a warm bucket of…’” Kirk told POLITICO, smiling as he recalled his conversations with McCain about a prospective Senate campaign.
“I actually love service in the House, whether it’s in the minority or not,” Kirk said. “So I disagreed with him on that. But his strong encouragement and backing—and he’s a personal hero of mine—did have an impact on my thinking.”
Yet McCain has offered much more than just inspiration. He has endorsed Kirk in the GOP primary, released his entire donor list to him and made Kirk the beneficiary of a $500,000 McCain-sponsored fundraiser earlier this year. And Kirk now counts Steve Schmidt, one of McCain’s top staffers on the 2008 campaign, as an informal advisor.
“[McCain] has told us that, with regard to my campaign for the Senate, what you need from us you will get,” said Kirk.
McCain, it turns out, has emerged as a political godfather of sorts to a number of other candidates aside from Kirk, providing them with unfiltered access to a national fundraising network he has cultivated over a span of two decades.
Last week, McCain formally endorsed GOP Rep. Jerry Moran in the Kansas Senate primary campaign against his more outspoken conservative opponent, Rep. Todd Tiahrt, and hosted a Capitol Hill fundraiser for Moran.
“He…tells me that he has been very circumspect in what races to get involved in. From my vantage point, it’s not a broad scale ‘I’m for everybody,’” said Moran. “It’s ‘I’m picking candidates that I feel very comfortable with,’ candidates that I think share some of his beliefs and philosophies of governing, and the largest part of that, I think, was fiscal responsibility.”
McCain’s increasingly active role—and his attempts to advance candidates cut from his own ideological mold—isn’t necessarily welcomed in all corners of the party.
“John McCain is a moderate. Birds of a feather fly together,” said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. “It’s not surprising.”
Erick Erickson, founder of the influential conservative blog, RedState, was even sharper in his criticism of McCain’s initiative.
“I’m sure John McCain has a lot of political favors he wants to return in 2010, but I don’t trust his views of who a winning candidate is anymore than I trust his ability to pick a winning campaign staff,” he said. “McCain has never really been a conservative, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s picking non-conservative candidates.”
McCain told POLITICO in a brief interview that he was determined to play a major role in the GOP’s rebuilding effort—beginning with the party’s 2010 campaign.
“I think it’s important, at this stage in my career, to try to support candidates that I think represent the next generation of leadership in the Republican Party,” the 73-year-old McCain said on his way to the Senate floor for a vote last week.
Loyalty also factors into the equation.
His campaigning for former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, a moderate facing a contested California primary, comes after she served as his presidential campaign co-chair. McCain has also helped Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who provided a key endorsement on the eve of his state’s presidential primary.
Another McCain endorsee, Vaughn Ward, is a former Marine who ran McCain’s Nevada campaign. Ward, who is now running for the House in Idaho, said he plans to have McCain come out to campaign with him and raise money for his bid.
California Assemblyman Van Tran, a Vietnamese American who is challenging Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez in Orange County, said McCain doesn’t forget his friends.
After endorsing the senator in 2008 against the urging of a local party establishment that preferred Mitt Romney, Tran said McCain was ready to return the favor when Tran visited him in his Senate office earlier this year.
The first words out his mouth, Tran said, were “How can I help?
“It’s a matter of personal loyalty and friendship,” said Tran. “This is basic reciprocity for the support and friendship I had given him.”
Those close to McCain say that, as much as anything else, his burgeoning political role reflects a determination he reached shortly after the conclusion of the presidential contest—that he would remain a factor on Capitol Hill.
“This is John’s way of staying in the game,” said Graham. “I guess he could have taken the ball home and said, ‘Well, I’ve had my shot.’”
“McCain spent about one day thinking about the presidential race and then was thinking about the Senate,” said Charlie Black, who was McCain’s senior advisor on the campaign. “Nobody should be surprised that McCain is as engaged in politics as he’s ever been—presidential race or no presidential race.”