Today, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) faces former Rep. J.D. Hayworth in what has been a hard-fought primary battle for the Republican nomination for Senate. Perhaps the central issue in the campaign has been immigration, with both candidates staggering as far to the right as possible. So far to the right, in fact, that David Catanese of Politico called the campaign “likely to leave a lasting and unsightly stain” on McCain’s legacy.

As Catanese narrates:

Once the sponsor of comprehensive immigration reform with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy — a stance that hurt him with conservatives — McCain moved in a different direction this year. He switched his emphasis this summer to border security, embraced Arizona’s controversial hard-line immigration law and, in an ad, called on the federal government to “complete the danged fence” — three years after dismissing the notion of a border fence in a Vanity Fair article titled “Prisoner of Conscience.”

McCain had a lot of work to do to match Hayworth’s particular brand of right-wing hysteria—an ideology so extreme that Hayworth supported the notion that President Obama prove his citizenship, again. Hayworth voted against a failed immigration bill in 2005 that would have made undocumented immigrants and anyone who helps them felons because it did not do enough to stop the flow of immigration. Hayworth’s 194 page book, Whatever it Takes, is probably even worse:

[The book] assails multiculturalism and voices support for the Minutemen, a vigilante group that has charged itself with monitoring American borders. In his chapter on the merits of assimilating immigrants into American society, Hayworth quotes from a 1914 New York Times article in which [Henry] Ford said: “These men of many nations must be taught American ways, the English language, and the right way to live.” In his book, Hayworth wrote, “Talk like that today and our liberal elites will brand you a cultural imperialist, or worse. But if you ask me, Ford had a better idea.”

Speculation is rife that McCain, after a likely win in today’s primary, will shift again politically and support or even co-sponsor some form of comprehensive immigration reform in 2011:

“This is one of the signature races that everybody’s watching because immigration is such a big issue in Arizona, and because Hayworth and McCain for a long time were on such diametrically opposed positions on the issue,” said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice…With recent polls showing McCain maintaining a comfortable lead, speculation has grown that the contest’s conclusion could increase the likelihood that Congress will take up immigration legislation, perhaps with McCain as a major advocate again.

However, McCain has continued to push hard for border security spending, unveiling a ten-point plan with fellow Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyl earlier this year, as well as his own border security bill. McCain also supported a $600 million border bill passed earlier this month sponsored by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

With all of the focus on border security, attention is lost on other issues, such as the record number of deaths occurring on the Arizona border this year, likely due to increased enforcement. Border deaths are another issue Senator McCain used to be sympathetic toward, going so far as to co-sponsor a bill in order to stop them in 2006.

The reality is that if McCain wins today, no one really knows how he will define what is likely, at 73, to be the end of his legislative legacy. Will he continue to push for border enforcement? Or will he be more like the McCain of 2006 who was instrumental in pushing for comprehensive immigration reform?

Perhaps it depends on the stakes. Back in a 2007 Vanity Fair interview, McCain, explaining that he did not think that building a border fence was an effective way to reform immigration, stated that “I’m willing to negotiate anything.”

Photo by Wigwam Jones