Choice for McCain's Successor Lays Bare Struggle Within GOP

(Bloomberg) -- The selection of John McCain’s replacement in the Senate sets up a potentially defining struggle between competing factions within the Republican party -- the old guard represented by the late Arizona senator, and the iconoclastic wing led by President Donald Trump.

The state’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey, won’t make an announcement about the seat until McCain is laid to rest next Sunday at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Under Arizona law, McCain’s successor must be a member of his party.

Choice for McCain's Successor Lays Bare Struggle Within GOP

Although McCain’s successor will be in office through 2020, the choice could send ripple effects through this November’s election: Ducey will be on the ballot and could find himself judged sharply within his own party on his pick. Meanwhile, the state’s other Senate seat will be settled in what independent analysts say will be a close contest, and the choice could color the outcome.

The selection will spill over into 2020, with both parties competing to hold McCain’s former seat for a full term and put Arizona -- which Trump won by three percentage points in 2016 -- into their column in the presidential race.

Caretaker or Candidate

While McCain battled the brain cancer that was diagnosed last year, Ducey and other Republicans have steered clear of any talk about replacing him. Among the choices the governor will now have to weigh is whether to name a caretaker or someone who will be a candidate to keep the seat two years from now.

Among the names mentioned to hold the seat temporarily are McCain’s widow, Cindy McCain, and former Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyl.

“Governor Ducey has an awesome responsibility there,” Kyl said on Fox News Sunday when asked what he wants to see happen with the seat. Whoever Ducey names should “continue representation for all the people of the United States on the most critical international issues. John had the experience to do that and he had the instincts, in my view, to make the right kinds of decisions, and I hope whoever the governor appoints can work in that vein.”

Cindy McCain had previously given the governor some indication of interest in holding the seat in a caretaker role had her husband died before the end of May -- but it isn’t clear if that’s still the case, said Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor of the independent Cook Political Report.

“I don’t know how she feels about it now,” Duffy said. “I don’t think we can take her off the list.”

Potential Picks

Other names being circulated among Arizona lawmakers are Eileen Klein, the former president of the Arizona Board of Regents who Ducey appointed as interim state treasurer earlier this year, and Kirk Adams, Ducey’s chief of staff and a former speaker of the Arizona House, according to a legislative aide in the state.

“Certainly they’re going to appoint someone with an eye toward retaining the seat,” Duffy said. “The only question is if Cindy McCain wants it. In which case it’s a short-term appointment.”

Before his death, McCain was said to have told Ducey that he didn’t want to try and dictate the appointment but that he’d prefer the governor pick someone in line with his approach to politics and policy, according to the aide, who asked for anonymity to discuss private conversations.

Ducey’s Choice

Stan Barnes, an Arizona-based Republican political consultant, said there are a number of qualified people -- but he doubts Ducey has decided yet.

Ducey “must be keenly aware that he will be judged by who he appoints, and he will be judged in November, because he is on the ballot,” Barnes said.

Given Trump’s close margin in Arizona in 2016, Democrats will be devoting plenty of resources to Arizona in the 2020 presidential race, making that year’s Senate contest even more likely to be one of the election’s marquee races, said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball election forecast at the University of Virginia.

“You would think this would be a competitive Senate race and the state will be competitive at the presidential level as well,” he said.

Complex Legacy

McCain leaves behind a complex legacy in Arizona. Although he was elected to six terms representing the state in the Senate, he’s fallen out of favor with Republicans there partly due to his stance on immigration, his biting criticism of Trump and his vote that doomed his party’s attempt to roll back Obamacare.

In a farewell statement from McCain read by a family spokesman on Monday, he indirectly criticized Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico and more broadly faulted the current state of politics. He told Americans not to “despair of our present difficulties but believe always in the promise and greatness of America.”

“We confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe,” he said. “We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down.”

A CBS News poll in June found that 62 percent of Arizona Democrats him favorably, while only 20 percent of Republicans did.

Grant Woods, a former Arizona attorney general who also served as McCain’s chief of staff, said that even though McCain easily won re-election in the state, the hard-core activists in the party “were generally not supportive of Senator McCain and haven’t been for a long time.”

“They didn’t like the fact that he regularly worked with people across party lines,” Woods said Monday on Bloomberg Radio.

That division likely will be on Ducey’s mind in making the appointment. Ducey is a “business-minded governor” who who probably won’t be inclined to pick a hard-line conservative replacement for McCain, Duffy said.

Still, Ducey will be on the November ballot and he won’t want to anger conservatives in the party base with his choice, Duffy said. He could make an unconventional pick, perhaps someone in the business community, she added.

Ducey is sure to get pressure from GOP leaders in the capital. Since McCain left Washington in December, the party was left with a one-vote majority in the Senate. Confirmation hearings for Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, are due to begin next week and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has very little cushion when the nomination comes to a vote on the Senate floor later in the month or in early October.

In the meantime, Arizona voters will be casting ballots in primaries for House, Senate and state offices on Tuesday -- and the GOP Senate primary illustrates the tensions within the party. Republican Senator Jeff Flake, who ran afoul of conservatives for his criticism of Trump and stances on issues such as immigration, is retiring rather than seeking another term.

The front-runner in the Republican race is Representative Martha McSally. She is being challenged from the right by former state senator Kelli Ward, who ran against McCain in the 2016 GOP primary -- and by former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, known for his tough crackdown on illegal immigration, who was convicted of criminal contempt of court but pardoned by Trump last year.

The leading Democrat is Representative Kyrsten Sinema. Both Cook and Sabato’s Crystal Ball rate that race as a tossup. If Sinema wins the 2018 race, that will demonstrate the potential for Democrats to seize the other Senate seat in 2020, Kondik said.

“This is a good pickup opportunity this year and you would expect it to be a competitive race in 2020,” he added.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.