It’s possible to imagine a world in which Sen. John McCain’s illness and death in office would send all three Republican candidates for Arizona’s other U.S. Senate seat racing to praise him and stake some claim to his immense legacy.
The insurgent conservative candidate, Kelli Ward, might compare her open-press bus tour and unfiltered speaking style to McCain’s old presidential campaigns — his famous “Straight Talk Express.”
Former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio might use his stump speeches to compare his decades-long political career in Arizona to McCain’s. And Rep. Martha McSally — the pollsters’ favorite to win — might be comparing her résumé of military and congressional experience to that of the Vietnam War pilot and prisoner who became a Washington powerhouse.
The reality is not even close.
The Arizona Republican Party that nurtured McCain and his retiring Senate colleague Jeff Flake, whose seat those candidates are seeking, has been overrun by the party of Donald Trump. For Republican candidates now, the imperative is to embrace the president lest they lose his voters — and many of those voters share Trump’s antipathy to McCain.
In 2018, the Republican candidates have chosen to try to maximize the vote of the party’s invigorated populist base — and hope that the burgeoning numbers of Latino and suburban voters in Arizona are not energized against them.
Ward built her national profile by attacking McCain — and not just for his relatively moderate immigration policies and vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act.
Before McCain was diagnosed with brain cancer, Ward called him an “an 80-year-old man” near “the end of life.” When he was diagnosed last summer, she urged him to “step away as quickly as possible,” and continued to criticize him for missing Senate votes during hospital stays.
When the senator’s office announced — one day before his death on Saturday — that he had stopped treatment for cancer, Ward suggested he had timed the announcement to interfere with her campaign bus tour.
She has since deleted that Facebook post and offered her condolences, but is hardly apologetic. As of Sunday afternoon, Ward’s campaign website bore no mention of McCain’s death, and was still promoting an old statement that calls him “a problem for President Trump’s agenda.”
Arpaio, meanwhile, has spent as much time coming up with creative ways to imprison immigrants as McCain has spent seeking compromises on border enforcement. As a sheriff, he once bragged of building a “concentration camp” for “illegals.” He is only free to run for the Senate because Trump pardoned him after a conviction related to immigration roundups.
Arpaio did take a break from criticizing the senator last week to offer some kind words in McCain’s final hours. But hours later, according to the Arizona Republic, Arpaio raged at McCain’s soon-to-be-widow for blocking him on Twitter.
Both Ward and Arpaio have also tried to link McSally to McCain, and routinely lump both in with Flake, another Trump critic who spent Sunday recounting his fidelity to McCain on news shows.
McSally — while not openly attacking McCain — has hardly spoken of him at all as her campaign has tilted further and further to the right. Once more publicly moderate and critical of Trump, she has fully embraced the president during her campaign.
McCain’s daughter Meghan was sharply critical of the congresswoman this month after she mimicked Trump and neglected to mention the full name of the “John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act.”
“McSally’s inability to even mention my father’s name when discussing the bill named in his honor is disgraceful (just as it was with Trump). I had such higher hopes for the next generation of leadership in my home state,” Meghan McCain wrote.
Snubs and policies aside, all three Republican hopefuls have embraced and won the favor of Trump, who has been publicly critical of McCain since his campaign for president.
Ward and Arpaio have increased their appeal to the president’s base by openly flirting with conspiracy theories and far-right provocateurs plucked straight from the so-called Trump Internet.
All three represent a sharp break from the brand of conservatism McCain professed for most of his career — although he too pulled a bit to the Trumpian right in 2010 when, facing a primary challenge, he dropped his support for a more moderate immigration approach and campaigned to “build the dang fence.”
McCain, for his part, had followed in the path trod by other classically conservative political figures in Arizona, such as the longtime senator and 1964 presidential nominee Barry Goldwater.
Some analysts expect McCain’s death will only hasten the state’s political transformation.
“McCain and Jeff Flake represented embracing diversity in a way the Republican Party has been quite hostile to,” said David Wells, a professor of politics at Arizona State University.
“The demographics haven’t looked for good for the GOP for a while,” he said, referring to the state’s explosive Hispanic population growth in the past two decades. “McCain represented the direction the Republican Party could be taking and they haven’t been taking. And he did pretty well with Hispanic voters.”
For years, Democrats have hoped that shifting demographics could turn Republican-dominated states like Arizona blue. It’s yet to happen, but Wells thinks it’s a real possibility in the near future as McCain and Flake are replaced by Republicans further to the right.
A few months from now, one of the three Trump-aligned candidates will face off against a Democrat running against the president, his border wall and nearly everything he stands for.
Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema announced late Sunday that she would cease campaigning Wednesday and Thursday “to honor Senator John McCain’s life of service and devotion to our country.”
But before that election, there will be another opportunity to demonstrate the GOP shift.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey will appoint a replacement to fill McCain’s seat until 2020, when a special election will determine the occupant until 2022, when McCain’s term would have ended.
Several of the alternatives are more right-leaning than McCain and another is Cindy McCain, the late senator’s widow.