While tributes to the heroic life and storied career of Sen. John McCain made headlines worldwide this weekend, there was another, quiet conversation going on in political circles, speculating on the effect of McCain’s absence from office for the first time since he entered Congress in 1983.
McCain was a towering figure on the national stage and a beloved one in Arizona politics. His death means that Arizona will have two new senators next year, since his junior colleague, Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, is retiring. It has been known for months that McCain’s condition was terminal, so even before the sad news of his death broke, political insiders were wondering how his absence would affect the balance of power in a closely divided Senate — as well as the contentious Aug. 28 primary to choose a Republican candidate to run for Flake’s seat.
Earlier this year, there was some confusion about when and how McCain’s seat would be filled in the event of his death. Arizona law is clear in one regard: The governor is to appoint a replacement of the same political party as the departing senator’s, who then fills the seat until the next general election, when the state’s voters choose their own replacement to serve a full six-year term.
Where the law wasn’t clear was timing. Would the next general election be 2018 — or 2020? The filing deadline for 2018 was May 30; the write-in deadline was in July. If McCain had died before those deadlines, lawsuits from the left calling for a 2018 special election might have ensued; fearing such a fight, Republican state legislators even crafted a bill designed to protect McCain’s seat.
Because McCain’s death occurred long past all filing deadlines, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey will now simply appoint a Republican to take McCain’s place until 2020.
Who will that Republican be? So far, chatter has centered on Ducey’s chief of staff, Kirk Adams, and recently appointed state Treasurer Eileen Klein.
Adams, 45, was elected to the Arizona House of Representatives in 2006; ascended to speaker of the House in 2008; and unsuccessfully ran for Flake’s old congressional seat, in the Phoenix suburbs, in 2012. As speaker, he supported SB1070, Arizona’s controversial immigration law, which required police officers to demand the papers of people suspected of being in the country illegally.
Klein served as president of the Arizona Board of Regents and chief of staff to former Gov. Jan Brewer before Ducey appointed her state treasurer in April. She is out of a job in January, when the winner of November’s election for treasurer — likely either Republican state Sen. Kimberly Yee or Democratic lawyer Mark Manoil — will assume the position.
Either Klein or Adams — or a different Republican replacement — would solve a problem that has been complicating the GOP’s legislative strategy for months now. The current composition of the Senate is 51 Republicans and 49 Democrats. With McCain home in Arizona undergoing treatment, however, Senate Republicans have been deprived of that 51st vote — meaning that any single GOP defector has potentially held enormous sway. With their 51st vote now restored, the GOP will have a little more wiggle room — particularly on the vote to confirm Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, which the party hopes to hold before the court reconvenes in October.
Meanwhile, McCain’s death could also affect the primary Tuesday for Arizona’s other Senate seat. On the GOP side, the main combatants are Rep. Martha McSally and former state Sen. Kelli Ward. (Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is also running, but has faltered in fundraising and lagged in the polls.) In 2016, Ward, a far-right firebrand, challenged McCain for the GOP Senate nomination, calling him “weak” and “old” and claiming he was “falling down on the job.” She went on to describe him as “a pretty sour old guy” and to cite her medical background while predicting that he would die in office. (Ward is an osteopath.) And though Ward lost to McCain that year, she continued to attack him during this election cycle, mocking his military service and arguing after his grim diagnosis that he should “step away as quickly as possible” so that she could take his place.
Such attacks, along with Ward’s early and eager embrace of Donald Trump, have raised her profile among the hardline conservatives who dominate Arizona’s Republican Party and who have, in recent years, turned against both McCain and Flake for their maverick, anti-Trump tendencies. But they haven’t been enough to propel Ward past McSally, a more mainstream politician with a somewhat moderate past who has also taken to praising Trump during the campaign.
In fact, the blunt-talking McSally, the first female Air Force fighter pilot to fly in combat, cuts a McCain-like figure herself. (McCain, of course, was also a fighter pilot, for the Navy.) So it’s not impossible to imagine that as Arizona Republicans head to the polls Tuesday, with warm memories of McCain’s character and service still dominating the airwaves, they will gravitate to the candidate who resembles him rather than the one who has made a career of maligning him.
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