Switch Hitter

Before he endorsed J.D. Hayworth, Jesse Kelly courted Sen. John McCain

Republican Jesse Kelly, who hopes to win the GOP primary to challenge Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, gave a fiery introduction to J.D. Hayworth in Tucson last month, when the former congressman launched his insurgent campaign against U.S. Sen. John McCain.

"Today is a day of reckoning," said Kelly, who is battling former state Sen. Jonathan Paton and political newcomers Brian Miller and Andy Goss in August's GOP primary in Congressional District 8. "It is a day when liberals from both parties have to stand before the American people and answer for their actions."

But before Hayworth got into the race, Kelly was trying to garner support from McCain, according to e-mails between the Kelly campaign and the McCain campaign.

Kelly says his endorsement of Hayworth is "not an indictment of John McCain. But I support J.D. Hayworth because he stands more with the conservative principles that I believe."

Hayworth's challenge to McCain in this year's GOP primary is exposing fault lines in the Arizona Republican Party. Hayworth himself has noted that the race is "a classic political confrontation: John McCain and the Washington establishment on one side, and we the people on the other."

By embracing Hayworth, Kelly is setting himself up as the outsider who is running against the big-government establishment, as represented by Paton, who recently had a Tucson Country Club fundraiser hosted by the likes of auto dealer Jim Click and legendary land speculator Don Diamond.

Kelly sent out a fundraising plea on the same day that complained that "the establishment candidate in our primary will officially be anointed at a fundraiser hosted by party insiders. This is the same crew who backed the establishment candidate in 2008, another state senator who lost to Rep. Giffords by 12 points. Now they are up to their old tricks, promoting another big-spending, establishment candidate."

Before he buddied up with Hayworth, however, Kelly himself was seeking contributions from party insiders such as Click, who gave Kelly a maximum contribution.

But Kelly denies rumors that he unsuccessfully sought McCain's endorsement earlier in his campaign.

"That is not true," he says. "I met with Sen. McCain. I never looked for his endorsement. He and Sen. (Jon) Kyl asked to meet with me the last time we were in D.C., and we sat down and met with them. There was never an offer nor a request for an endorsement there."

Both McCain and Kyl chuckle at the idea that they had sought out a meeting with Kelly while he was in Washington, D.C.

"How would we have known he was in town?" McCain asks.

A senior McCain campaign staffer confirms that both McCain and Kyl did meet with Kelly, but says the sit-down came after numerous entreaties from the Kelly campaign.

Kelly recalls that the meeting came about after he "got an e-mail asking for us to come meet with Sen. McCain and Sen. Kyl in Sen. McCain's office. We were happy to go meet with them, of course. My goodness, we were trying to keep the party neutral in the very least in the race and stop them from getting an establishment guy in the race."

But an e-mail trail from the McCain campaign shows that the Kelly camp had been pursuing a meeting with McCain as long ago as July 2009, when Kelly sent McCain an e-mail after attending a fundraiser for McCain at the Westin La Paloma, at Click's invitation.

"It was nice event," Kelly recalls. "I was happy I didn't have to pay to get in."

Kelly's e-mail to the McCain staff reads: "My name is Jesse Kelly and I'm the Republican running against Gabrielle Giffords in District 8 of Arizona. The Senator and I met at a special event for him held by Mr. Jim Click at the Westin La Paloma in Tucson, AZ. The Senator mentioned that he was interested in helping with my race and I would like to set up an appointment to sit down with him the next time he is in Arizona."

The e-mail was forwarded to the McCain campaign staff by Bret Summers, who recently stepped down as Kelly's campaign manager.

Two months later, in mid-September, Summers sent another e-mail to the McCain staff in advance of a McCain visit to Tucson, asking for time to meet with McCain.

"I was wondering and hoping that you could arrange for us to have at least 5 minutes of the Senator's time to discuss (Jesse's) campaign and receiving the Senator's support that he offered back at our prior meeting," Summers wrote.

Kelly says he was unaware that Summers was courting support from McCain.

"As far as what Bret sent, I don't know about that," Kelly says. "If Bret sent that over, he very well may have."

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