A United States Senate seat is, as Rod Blagojevich famously observed, “a f***ing valuable thing; you just don’t give it away for nothing.” Arizona Governor Doug Ducey currently has a Senate seat to give away at his discretion, one that has been held since 1987 by John McCain. Ducey’s appointee, whoever he or she is, will serve until 2020, at which time the voters will choose who fills out the final two years of the term McCain was elected to in 2016. In making his decision, Ducey should not look to the past, but to the future – specifically, the future of the Republican Party in Arizona.
The past tends to beckon when political observers look to fill a vacancy like this, especially after the death of a Washington fixture like McCain. Some have suggested, for example, that McCain’s 64-year-old widow Cindy should be appointed to carry on McCain’s legacy. There’s some logic to this: the people of the state elected McCain in part due to their trust in his individual judgment, and who would know better “what would John McCain do?” than his wife of nearly four decades? Wives have sometimes been appointed to replace their husbands in these situations, and if these were normal political times and there were only a few months left in McCain’s term, I might buy that argument. But the Senate is almost evenly divided, the Arizona GOP is in crisis, and a two year term is too long to treat as a family heirloom. The same logic applies to McCain’s children – some have suggested his daughter Meghan, who has grown into a more effective voice on some conservative perspectives on The View, but she remains an electoral neophyte who is more valuable where she is.
A second backwards-looking choice would be Jon Kyl. A three-term Arizona Senator and former GOP Senate Whip, Kyl is a serious, well-regarded conservative able to step into the job at a moment’s notice. But at age 76, Kyl is six years past his Senate retirement, working as a DC lobbyist, and currently engaged by the White House to shepherd Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination through the Senate, a role he would need to abruptly abandon if asked to return to the Senate. Kyl might accept the role if convinced that his services to his state were necessary, and none of the practical obstacles are insuperable. But a man in his mid-70s who voluntarily chose retirement six years ago should be allowed to enjoy his retirement, and is unlikely to be better the second time around.
Here’s the core problem: the Arizona Republican Party faced the risk of a fundamental schism of the sort that has drastically weakened the Republican Party in Colorado and crippled it in Virginia. The proto-Trump wing of the party simply no longer trusts the courtly, pro-trade, pro-immigrant, neoconservative Goldwaterite wing of the party represented by McCain and Jeff Flake. It may seem bizarre that the worm has turned thus for the heirs of the man who ran on the credo that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Goldwater, in his day, was seen as the ne plus ultra of right-wing craziness, but he mellowed in his later years, and his some of his disciples like McCain and Flake mellowed further in office after winning election as fiscal hawks, losing the trust of conservative populists. But the alternatives in Arizona to McCain and Flake have not been Tea Party-style up-and-coming ideological movement conservatives; they have been loons and grifters like J.D. Hayworth, Kelli Ward, and Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Like Virginia, Arizona not only faces demographic shifts that favor Democrats, it also risks an internal civil war in which the Republicans who are serious are not conservative, and the Republicans who are conservative are not serious, and neither can tolerate the other.
The problem is not yet critical; Bill Clinton in 1996 is still the only Democrat since 1948 to carry Arizona at the presidential level, Democrats haven’t won the governorship since 2006 or a Senate race since 1988, and Republicans currently dominate both houses of the state legislature. In last night’s primary, the mainstream Republicans did well: Ducey won his primary with 70.5% of the vote, and Congresswoman Martha McSally won 52.9% of the vote in a three-way race against the two yahoos, Ward and Arpaio. There were 29% more Republican than Democrat votes in the gubernatorial primary, 28% more in the Senate primary. McSally and Ducey will both have hard races ahead, and McSally will have the greater uphill battle to get the Ward and Arpaio voters behind her, but we should await the November results before declaring this a state party in crisis.
But Virginia in particular shows how quickly a competitive, fairly-recently dominant state party can collapse into infighting once the losing begins. It’s a vicious cycle: losses make the party establishment more skeptical of fresh faces and more determined to stack the process and nominate cautious, colorless functionaries, while the populists drift from ideological hardliners (like Ken Cuccinelli) to self-immolating clowns (like Corey Stewart) in the escalating pursuit of “fighting back” and “try something different.” At the endpoint of that process, you get a state party that looks like California, or Illinois, or New York.
It does not have to be that way. The demographics of Arizona are still more like those of Texas or Florida than Virginia, and the Republican parties in those states – building on a foundation poured by George W. and Jeb Bush and nurtured by their successors – have mostly weathered the storm and found statewide candidates who could appeal to both the Trump and McCain wings of the party and those in between. Greg Abbott will almost certainly cruise to victory this fall; if Ted Cruz and Rick Scott face tougher races, it’s mostly not due to internal divisions in their base. Even Ron DeSantis, fresh off a divisive primary for Florida Governor, is likely to have little difficulty winning over Republican voters. In Arizona, Ducey himself seems to have navigated that tricky task; his goal in choosing a new Senator should be to make a choice all the factions can live with and learn to respect. Cindy McCain would obviously be the worst choice (other than Ward or Arpaio) in inflaming one side of the divide and corroding their trust in their voices getting heard. Ducey is reportedly careful not to choose a candidate who would be obviously unacceptable to the Trump White House, but it would be foolish to prioritize loyalty to Trump over a candidate who can appeal to pro- and anti-Trump voters among the state’s Republicans and independents. And given the tenuous state of Republican control of the House, Ducey can’t afford to pick a current member of Arizona’s House delegation running for re-election.
The wild card is whether the 54-year-old Ducey himself has an eye on the seat in 2020, which would entice him to pick either an aging placeholder or a loyalist who could be counted on to step aside. As a business executive who has lived in Arizona since college, he may not want to become a Beltway legislator. One candidate who has been mentioned is Kirk Adams, Ducey’s 45-year-old chief of staff who was Speaker of the Arizona House before losing a bid for Congress in 2012 (he lost a primary to Matt Salmon by just 3,000 votes). Adams, best known as a tax cutter, would likely fit the loyalist bill, and would be an Arizona-centric rather than DC-centric pick. He, or another younger member of the state government, would be a far better choice than going back to the well with Kyl or Mrs. McCain.