John McCain trounced Claire Sargent in the '92 Senate race. Now he's doing the same in book sales

Sargent didn't ride either wave. To be fair, she was up against a tough opponent. McCain was weak, but the future champion of campaign finance reform was incredibly well-financed. He raised about $3 million to Sargent's $350,000.

But McCain was beatable. Another factor working against him was the fact that Ev Mecham -- the impeached former governor -- was running as an independent, taking votes from McCain the way Ross Perot took votes from George Bush that same year.

If she'd done her homework, Sargent could have made a go of it. Instead, she called herself a big picture candidate and pooh-poohed discussions of economics and foreign policy. She tried to paint McCain as a scamp by tying him to the Navy's raucous Tailhook conventions, but looked like a fool since she had no evidence of wrongdoing on the senator's part. (McCain hadn't attended the infamous 1991 Tailhook event, which resulted in Navy personnel being reprimanded for unprofessional conduct.) And Sargent wasn't even able to get people riled up about the Keating scandal. She might have breasts, but she acted like a boob.

Joe Forkan
Joe Forkan

In her book, Sargent refuses to take the blame, reserving a large chunk of it for then-senator Dennis DeConcini.

Some background. In 1992, DeConcini, like McCain, had hit bottom as a member of the Keating Five. DeConcini was trying to decide whether to run again -- his term was up in 1994 -- and he was calling in chits. Once sweet and giving, politics had hardened DeConcini. He was the Arizona Democrats' go-to guy when it came to fund raising, and he felt the people he had helped for years had abandoned him during the Keating scandal.

So when people like Claire Sargent came to him for help in 1992, DeConcini asked them to sign loyalty pledges. It ended up a moot point, since DeConcini didn't run in 1994. (He's now a lobbyist in Washington.) Sargent refused to sign. She wasn't the only one; Karan English, who did win a seat in Congress that year, refused as well.

I don't blame them. It was an ethically dubious thing for DeConcini to ask them to do. But the incident was not the monumental atrocity Sargent describes. Although she refused to sign, DeConcini did help Sargent. He wrote her a check for $1,000 and introduced her around Capitol Hill.

The signature request must have been all the more insulting to the Sargents because Henry Sargent and Dino, Dennis' older brother, were old friends.

As Sargent recalls in her book: "Henry was extremely fond of the senior DeConcinis, but didn't really know Dennis very well because he was three years younger. In those early years he was just 'in the way,' as kid brothers can be, and Henry remembers that Dennis used to run crying to his mother when the older boys kept him awake with their raucous poker games in the DeConcini kitchen."

She devotes page after page to a detailed retelling of Dennis DeConcini's snub during her race. A portion of it is lifted from a guest column Sargent wrote for a local daily shortly after her defeat.

After the piece was published, Gene Karp, then DeConcini's chief of staff, wrote a scathing response, in which he mentions that even after her defeat, Sargent asked DeConcini to help her secure a presidential appointment (she didn't get one) and for tickets to Bill Clinton's inauguration. Karp writes:

"One could ask, if DeConcini was a part of the 'system' that she wanted no part of, why did she want his help in having that 'system' pull out all of the stops to help her.

"As did so many women during the 1992 campaign, Sargent had a golden opportunity to become a viable candidate. Sen. John McCain was vulnerable and the candidacy of Evan Mecham improved her prospects. It was obvious then, as it is now, that Sargent did not have the depth and stature to seize the opportunity presented to her by Arizona's voters. She botched that opportunity and is now trying to blame others for her failure."

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