Uncertainty about Sen. John McCain’s future has set off a flurry of hushed conversations and concern in the Republican Party about a possible vacancy that could make it harder for the GOP to hold its Senate majority.
As the Arizona Republican battles brain cancer, party leaders are contemplating the unusual prospect of defending two Senate seats in the state this year – something they are already doing in Mississippi as they seek to improve on their 51-49 advantage in the midterm elections.
McCain’s health has been shrouded in secrecy, leading many Republicans to privately wonder whether he will remain in office beyond May 30. If he doesn’t, there would probably be a special election for his seat in the fall.
Congress will return Monday from a two-week recess with no clear indication that McCain, 81, will be back. He has been absent since December, and his spokeswoman Julie Tarallo declined to comment on his condition or whether he plans to return.
In public, influential Republicans have been reluctant to speculate about McCain’s future in the context of electoral politics out of respect to the Senate titan, who is beloved by many in the party. But privately, they have engaged in talks about who might replace him or run for his seat.
From those conversations, which have occurred among strategists, officials and donors in Arizona and Washington, a long list of names has emerged of possible interim or long-term successors, including McCain’s wife, Cindy, and former senator Jon Kyl.
Interviews with nearly a dozen Republicans this week, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic, revealed a sense of nervousness over the lack of a clear road map. “The problem,” as one prominent Arizona Republican said, is there is no “logical” or “obvious” successor.
“There’s a lot of talk and speculation about where it goes,” said another Republican, who has been in touch with McCain.
The decision to appoint a replacement would be up to Gov. Doug Ducey, R, who is up for reelection. According to Republicans close to him, Ducey has been determined not to entertain any hypotheticals.
“We aren’t engaging in any speculation. The governor has made that clear. He wants to see Senator McCain return to the Senate,” said Ducey’s spokesman, Daniel Scarpinato.
Some have suggested Ducey consider appointing himself or running for the seat, according to Republicans familiar with the talks. But he has shut that down. “He has never and would never consider it, no matter the circumstances,” Scarpinato said.
Arizona already has a marquee Senate matchup. The race for retiring Republican Sen. Jeff Flake’s seat has triggered a divisive primary that has pitted mainstream Republican Rep. Martha McSally against a pair of hard-right conservatives: former sheriff Joe Arpaio and state Sen. Kelli Ward. Democrats have recruited Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, a well-funded candidate who Republicans privately acknowledge could be a formidable opponent.
Adding another race in a year in which Democratic energy is high unnerves Republicans and has sparked talk about how to protect the seat.
If there is another Senate race in Arizona, it would become the third state with two on the ballot this year. In addition to Mississippi, where Sen. Thad Cochran, R, recently stepped down, Minnesota is hosting two contests, both for seats held by Democrats.
If McCain vacates his seat by May 30, there would be primaries in August and a November special election to fill the remainder of his term, provided candidates submit enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, according to Eric Spencer, the election services director in Arizona.
While some close observers contend there is gray area in the way the election laws are written, most agree that if May 30 comes and goes without any vacancy, there would be no election this year and the Ducey appointment, should there eventually be one, would serve through 2020.
The timing of any vacancy will be key to determining who gets the appointment, Republicans predicted. Several Republicans said Cindy McCain’s name has come up in private conversations as a potential noncontroversial interim replacement. The same is true of Kyl, they said.
A person familiar with the McCains’ thinking said the family has not been thinking about or advocating for Cindy McCain joining the Senate.
Others who have been mentioned as possible successors in Republican circles include former congressman John Shadegg and Kirk Adams, who is Ducey’s chief of staff.
“There is no Senate vacancy, and any speculation is unacceptable. Our full support is behind Senator McCain,” Adams said. Shadegg did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Republican who has spoken with McCain said the senator has left the impression that he is “not going anywhere” – meaning he has no plans to resign from the Senate. Last July, McCain’s office said he was diagnosed with a brain tumor called a glioblastoma, an aggressive type of brain cancer, with a generally poor prognosis.
McCain cast a dramatic vote later that month against the Republican plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, dooming its chances and leaving the party short of achieving one of its signature campaign promises of the past few years.
More recently, McCain has kept a low profile as he has undergone treatment. Former vice president Joe Biden accepted an award for him at the Naval Academy last month. Cindy McCain accepted an award on his behalf at a conference in Munich in February.
Last month, McCain’s daughter Meghan posted a photo on social media of her with her father, offering one of the few glimpses of the senator in his recent condition.
From afar, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman has continued to issue a steady stream of written statements on domestic and foreign affairs, including lambasting President Trump for congratulating Russian President Vladimir Putin on his reelection. McCain and Trump have clashed sharply since the 2016 campaign.
McCain has been working on a new memoir with his longtime adviser Mark Salter. It is due out May 22.