Arizona Republicans want to ensure a Democrat can't fill John McCain's seat in 2018

The Arizona Senate is proposing a bill that would take McCain's seat out of consideration if he dies or resigns

By Matthew Rozsa
Published April 18, 2018 2:35PM (EDT)
John McCain (AP/Patrick Semansky)
John McCain (AP/Patrick Semansky)

The Arizona Senate is apparently bracing for the possibility that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., will either die or retire — and is working to make sure his seat remains in Republican hands.

On Tuesday, the Republican-controlled state Senate attached an emergency clause to a bill that changes the rules for replacing a member of Congress who dies in office or chooses to resign, according to the Associated Press. Under the current system, any vacancy in a U.S. Senate seat must be temporarily filled by a governor's appointee before it is permanently filled during the subsequent general election. That means that if McCain either dies or retires by May 31, the race to fill his seat would be in effect during both the primary in August and the general election in November.

Under the new proposal put forward by the Republican Senate, however, the seat would have to be vacant as of 150 days prior to the primary, which for 2018 falls on March 31. This would effectively remove McCain's seat from being potentially contested, a fate that Republicans are particularly eager to avoid given that Arizona's other United States Senator, Republican Jeff Flake, won't run for re-election this year, either.

"They're trying to make it really easy to appoint someone to two and a half years without an election to a U.S. Senate seat should the current holder of that Senate seat resign or no longer be able to hold office," Democratic Sen. Steve Farley told AP. "The thing is, we're all going to vote against it as Democrats, so they won't get their emergency. It's silly for them to put it on and think we won't notice."

The math supports Farley's argument, as the emergency clause requires a two-thirds vote in order to pass.

Republican Sen. Sonny Borrelli, who carried the floor amendment on Tuesday, argued that it was necessary to pass the bill in order to "be prepared." At the same time, he vehemently denied that he was focused on trying to protect McCain's seat.

"That's assuming that something is going to happen to John McCain. This is a man who survived Hanoi, spent his entire adult life serving his country, has got a very strong constitution. If there's one guy on this planet who can beat this cancer, it will be him," Borelli explained, regarding the bill.

McCain's health has been the subject of much attention since he was diagnosed with brain cancer last year. The pugnacious Republican who has long prided himself on being a so-called "maverick" is already in his 80s, worsening his prognosis, and had a bout with melanoma during the previous decade.

While his struggle with cancer has prompted the political world to wonder about what the Senate will be like without his presence, McCain himself has made waves throughout the year. His critics on the right have been angry at moments like his iconic decision to vote "thumbs down" on one of the Republican Party's attempts to repeal Obamacare legislation. McCain, however, characterized this decision as motivated by his desire to bring bipartisanship back to Washington rather than by any kind of support for Obamacare.

"I've stated time and time again that one of the major failures of Obamacare was that it was rammed through Congress by Democrats on a strict-party line basis without a single Republican vote. We should not make the mistakes of the past that has led to Obamacare's collapse, including in my home state of Arizona where premiums are skyrocketing and health care providers are fleeing the marketplace," McCain said in his speech.

McCain has also been one of Trump's fiercest detractors within the Republican Party. The Arizona Senator has denounced the president's foreign policy as "half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems" and argued that abdicating America's leadership role in the world was as "unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history."

The Trump-McCain feud traces back to before the former reality TV star became president. After McCain criticized Trump in some of his speeches, Trump took a swipe at the Vietnam vet's status as a war hero, saying that he preferred people who weren't captured. McCain has subsequently made veiled attacks on Trump receiving five deferments during the Vietnam War because of his class privileges, and withdrew his support from Trump after the "Access Hollywood" tape leaked in which the mogul was heard bragging about committing sexual assault.

Perhaps most notably, McCain denounced Trump's character in an editorial last summer that described him as "a president who has no experience of public office, is often poorly informed and can be impulsive in his speech and conduct" and urged his fellow Republicans in Congress to remember that "we are not his subordinates. We don’t answer to him. We answer to the American people."

This isn't to say that McCain's track record has been entirely anti-Trump. Quite to the contrary; as of March, McCain had voted with Trump's position 83 percent of the time, according to statistics from FiveThirtyEight. Based on Trump's margin of victory in Arizona during the 2016 presidential election, FiveThirtyEight projected that it would have been more realistic for him to have supported Trump's agenda just over 61 percent of the time, creating a nearly 22 percentage point discrepancy between McCain's anticipated scores and actual scores.

All of this illustrates that McCain, while independent-minded enough to occasionally stick his thumb in Trump's eye (or turn it down at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell), is still for the most part a reliably conservative vote in the United States Senate. As a result, it makes ideological as well as partisan sense for his fellow Arizona Republicans to be anxious about the possibility of losing him and having him replaced by a Democrat — especially considering that, if conventional wisdom and early polling data hold true, the 2018 midterm elections are expected to be a good year for Democrats.

Nevertheless, as Farley told the AP, Arizona Democrats are not willing to allow Republicans to pass their emergency provision, and without their support it is very difficult to see a way for that provision to pass.

Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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2018 Midterm Elections Donald Trump John Mccain