Originally Published: November 6, 2014 1:30 p.m.
PHOENIX - Republican Sen. John McCain said Thursday he is preparing for a strong primary challenge if he moves ahead with a re-election bid in 2016.
McCain said after a meeting with longtime supporters at a Phoenix hotel that he is leaning toward a run for a sixth term in 2016, the year he turns 80.
McCain said he will likely make the decision early next year. If he decides to run, he said he'll plan for a very difficult campaign with good competition.
"We have to prepare, we have to prepare for ... the greatest challenge," McCain said after the breakfast meeting. "Every campaign I've been in I've said, look, this is going to be the toughest. And you have to assume that. And we have seen historically that people who take anything for granted, then they put that election in jeopardy. I've never done that."
No Republicans or Democrats have yet indicated that they plan to run for McCain's Senate seat. But he faced a primary challenge from former U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth in 2010 and said he expects another challenge from within his own party.
"I think I certainly anticipate it," McCain said. "If you're going to win a campaign, you have to plan for all scenarios, including significant primary opposition. I wouldn't like to see it, obviously."
McCain has angered the conservative wing of his own party by backing immigration reform. The state Republican Party censured him in January for that position and other stances they say weren't sufficiently conservative. McCain said after the January vote by the Arizona Republican Party that he had fought President Barack Obama and that the rebuke came from a "very extremist element" that has taken over the state party.
A handful of Republican protesters opposed to McCain picketed outside the hotel, holding signs that said "Time to Retire" and Hell, no, McCain must go."
"He's been in office for five terms as senator and if he ever did understand the Republican Party platform, he certainly does not understand it now," party activist Andrew Constanzo said.
McCain is in line to become chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee when the new Congress convenes in January. Republicans took control of the Senate in Tuesday's midterm elections, boosting their power to control the agenda.
McCain also discussed immigration reform, and he warned Obama not to go forward with an executive order legalizing many of the 11 million immigrants who lack proper documentation to remain in the U.S.
"If the president really wants immigration reform, he should know that if he acts by executive order it will be a tremendously serious blow to accomplishing it," McCain said.