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Arizona's Salmon Bides His Time on McCain Challenge

Salmon said some of his colleagues have been pressing him to run for Senate against McCain. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The pressure for Arizona Rep. Matt Salmon to challenge Sen. John McCain doesn't end with conservative outside groups hoping to unseat the five-term senator.  

"Numerous members in the House — and some members of the Senate," have encouraged Salmon to run in a GOP primary, "which has shocked me greatly," the congressman told CQ Roll Call Wednesday.  

"It seems like the drumbeat is getting louder and louder and louder. From colleagues here, from colleagues over on the Senate side," Salmon said.  

But the 57-year-old isn't ready to make the jump — at least not yet. And he thinks much of the chatter about him being eager to take on McCain, 78, is overblown.  

"I love where I’m at," he said. "I’m not chomping at the bit. I’m not one of those guys who is always looking for the next better gig."  

Not all of the pressure is coming from Washington. "There has been a substantial amount of people from Arizona — not just in one wing of the party — there have been moderate people, there have been conservative people, ultraconservative people," Salmon said. "I probably get, you know, 40 or 50 calls a week from people in Arizona encouraging me to jump into that race."  

Salmon arrived in the House as part of the 1994 Republican takeover. But in 2001, fulfilling a term-limit pledge, he left to mount a failed bid for governor. After several years serving as state GOP chairman, he won his old House seat back in 2012.  

Since he's been back in Washington, he's voted with President Barack Obama 2 percent of the time, compared to 8 percent for the average House Republican, according to CQ's Vote Watch . Since 2013, McCain's record of supporting the president is about the same as the average Senate Republican.  

Salmon wouldn't comment about what's motivating Arizonans to urge him to run — "I’m not trying to pick some kind of a fight," he said — but outside groups such as FreedomWorks are only too happy to extol his conservative record compared to McCain's.  

Salmon's lifetime conservative rating with the Club for Growth is 99 percent; McCain's is 84 percent.  

"They’ve basically made no bones about it," Salmon said of conservative outside groups such as the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, Citizens United and the Senate Conservatives Fund. "They’ve said that if you get in, we’re all in."  

FreedomWorks CEO Adam Brandon acknowledges Salmon has to take his time making his decision. "It’s one thing to take our word for it; it’s another thing to take our activists' word for it," he said.  

Brandon expects Salmon to meet with activists in the state before deciding for certain. He said his sense of what Salmon will be testing is, “Guys, if I’m going to jump into this, there’d better be some water in the pool."  

Salmon isn't the only potential challenger McCain could see. State Sen. Kelli Ward sent an email to tea party supporters earlier this week asking, "Should I run against John McCain in the Republican Primary?"  

But Ward is unlikely to be able to raise the kind of money necessary to unseat one of the highest-profile Republicans in the Senate.  

"I don’t want to be harsh on her, but if you’re going to take John McCain, you’ve got to get near perfect candidates to win," Brandon said. "I think [Salmon's] probably the only shot you have to winning" both the primary and the general election. "Even if he’s outspent," he added.  

McCain raised $2.1 million in the first quarter of 2015, ending the period with $3.7 million in cash on hand. Salmon, whose federal office puts him in a stronger starting spot than Ward, raised only $74,000 and had $477,000 in cash on hand in his House re-election account at the end of the first quarter.  

But with Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick already in the race , national Republicans hoping to hold the Senate aren't pleased about the prospect of having to spend money defending McCain in a primary, too.  

Kirkpatrick's entrance into the race prompted The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call to change the race rating from Republican Favored to Leans Republican.  

As for his decision, Salmon said he doesn't have a timeline. "Right now," he said, "I am not out there pounding a drum to jump into any race."  

Related: Kirkpatrick to Challenge McCain in Arizona Congressman Leaning Against John McCain Primary Roll Call Race Ratings Map: Ratings for Every House and Senate Race in 2016 Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.