The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The GOP will probably hold onto McCain’s seat until 2020

At age 81, and with a cancer diagnosis, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) looked back on his life with immense gratitude. (Video: Reuters)
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This post has been updated.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)'s death Saturday from brain cancer ended a historic career in the Senate, and came just a day after he announced that he would stop treatment for the disease.

McCain’s passing leaves a vacancy for his Senate seat. Arizona’s governor, Doug Ducey (R), will appoint a replacement for McCain’s seat, which will not be up for election again until November 2020.

That means McCain’s replacement in a nearly evenly divided Senate is likely to be a Republican.

Ducey is up for reelection in November, but his reelection is not nearly as competitive as some of the nation’s other governor battles. Democratic voters will pick Ducey’s challenger Tuesday. Arizona Republicans will vote in the primary to succeed retiring Sen. Jeff Flake.

The state of affairs for Senate Republicans looked much more complicated a few months ago. If McCain had left office before May 30, there would have been a special election for his seat sometime this year. That would have meant Republicans defending two Senate seats in one state. Republicans are already trying to hold onto the seat left open by Flake. Nationally, Democrats have Flake’s seat on the map as one of three to four narrow pathways to help them take the majority in the Senate in November’s midterm elections.

Flake’s seat may still be in play in November, but it looks like McCain’s is not. There’s nothing in the state Constitution that allows for a special election after the May 30 filing deadline, said Matt Roberts, communications director with the Arizona secretary of state’s office.

Election officials told The Washington Post in spring that there was the possibility of a legal battle to try to hold a special election in 2018 for McCain’s seat, even if candidates have to file after that May 30 deadline.

“If there was a vacancy today and we made a decision on ‘yes, call a special election’ or ‘no, [don’t] call a special election’ . . . there is a 99.9 percent chance that litigation would ensue,” said Eric Spencer, election services director in the office of Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan, a Republican.

But that was closer to May. Now, a federal election is just months away, and no matter what happens to McCain’s seat in the coming days or weeks or months, it seems very probable that it won’t be on the ballot again until 2020.