John McCain Has Died at 81, But What Happens in the Senate Now?
John McCain — a former Navy pilot, a Vietnam prisoner of war, a 30-year senator, a two-time presidential contender, and a critic of Donald Trump — has died at age 81. The New York Times reports that McCain died in his Arizona home at 4:28 local time on August 25.
News of John McCain’s death came just a day after his family announced that he had decided to stop treatment for a malignant brain tumor, called a glioblastoma. McCain’s cancer had been treated with radiation and chemotherapy. But his family stated that he was stopping treatment because “the progress of disease and the inexorable advance of age render their verdict.”
CNN notes that Friday’s announcement that McCain was halting treatment “precipitated a rare moment of bipartisan empathy in honor of the Vietnam war hero and Republican political veteran.” As the United States pauses to take stock of McCain’s life and legacy, the Senate, also, will do some reckoning. What happens next in the Senate as colleagues mourn John McCain’s death? Here’s what you can expect.
Arizona’s governor will appoint a short-term replacement
Vox notes that John McCain’s death will have “dramatic consequences for the chamber he devoted three decades of his life to.” The first thing that will happen? Arizona Governor Doug Ducey will appoint a short-term replacement for McCain. Vox notes that this replacement is likely to be “a more conventional Republican, one less likely to buck their party’s leadership.” The publication explains that this sort of replacement “could make it easier to wrangle together the 51 Republican senators needed for tough votes.”
McCain’s Senate seat won’t be on the Arizona ballot in 2018 because, as per Arizona law, the deadline for that has passed. (Instead, the replacement whom Ducey appoints will serve until 2020.) The Washington Post notes that if McCain had left office before May 30, there would have been a special election for his seat sometime this year. In that case, Republicans would have found themselves defending two Senate seats in one state. Jeff Flake is retiring and Democrats already want to win his seat.
McCain’s replacement will help GOP leaders, but not on every issue
Though John McCain didn’t always live up to his reputation as a maverick — FiveThirtyEight notes that over his Senate career, McCain was “only slightly more likely than the average senator to vote against his party” — he was also “a less reliable Republican vote than many of his colleagues,” according to Vox.
Whoever Ducey appoints, the new Arizona senator will likely prove a more reliable vote for Republican leaders as they navigate the 51-49 Senate than John McCain was. As Vox points out, “Ducey is more or less a traditional Republican himself. He will likely choose somebody his party’s leaders would approve of.”
McCain’s replacement could make it easier for Republican leaders on small issues. (That includes efforts to get judicial and Cabinet nominees approved or pass legislation.) But his replacement might not make a big difference when it comes to big issues. (Think Obamacare repeal or welfare reform.) Vox explains, “Getting any major legislation through a 51-49 Senate in an election year is still going to be tough.”
Democrats will try to win McCain’s seat in 2020
Though Ducey will appoint a replacement following John McCain’s death, that replacement will only serve until 2020. At that point, whoever takes McCain’s seat will face voters. Vox reports that Democrats currently have a significant shot at Flake’s seat. (Kyrsten Sinema consistently polls in the lead.) But do they have a chance at McCain’s seat, too?
Vox reports that Democrats will have to defend 26 Senate seats in the next election, while Republicans have just eight seats to defend. To win the Senate, Democrats would have to hold onto their seats and win two Republican-held seats. Arizona makes an attractive target because of its growing Hispanic population. (And because of the narrow margin by which Trump won Arizona in 2016.)
Ducey hasn’t commented on potential appointees
AZ Central reports that Ducey has avoided discussing the topic of replacements after John McCain’s death. (He has only said that he won’t appoint himself to McCain’s seat.) But that hasn’t stopped Arizonans from discussing the possibilities. Some people think that Ducey could appoint Cindy McCain, John McCain’s wife, to fill her husband’s seat and carry on her husband’s legacy in the Senate.
The governor could also appoint his chief of staff, Kirk Adams, a former state lawmaker and speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives. Alternately, Ducey could appoint Barbara Barrett, the first female Republican to run for governor in Arizona who has, nonetheless, never held elected office. Ducey could also select Jon Kyl, former U.S. Senate Republican whip who didn’t seek reelection in 2012 after 26 years in Congress.
AZ Central reports that Karrin Taylor Robson, founder of a land-use strategy and real-estate development company; former John Shadegg; Arizona state treasurer Eileen Klein; and retired member of the U.S. House of Representatives Matt Salmon have also been identified as potential contenders for the appointment.
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