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Both Of Arizona's Senate Seats Are Now In Question

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Arizona today, flags are flying at half-staff in honor of Senator John McCain. McCain represented Arizonans in Washington for more than three decades before his death Saturday. He'll be buried in Annapolis this coming weekend.

And the debate has already begun over who should fill his Senate seat. On top of all that, Arizona holds its primary elections tomorrow, including one to set up November's race for the other Senate seat. Laurie Roberts is a columnist with the Arizona Republic. Welcome.

LAURIE ROBERTS: Thank you very much for having me.

CHANG: So Republican Governor Doug Ducey said he won't be making an appointment to fill McCain's seat until after the burial. But can you talk about what kind of calculations Ducey may be making as he's considering his choices?

ROBERTS: Well, Governor Ducey is himself facing a pretty tough re-election bid here, and he will very much consider the calculus of the far-right versus the center-right - the McCain wing of the Republican Party versus the Trump wing of the Republican Party. And he's got to figure out, how do I balance that because I need all those voters to come out and vote for me in November?

CHANG: And who's considered to be a real contender at this point?

ROBERTS: Well, if you want my opinion, and, strangely, he hasn't asked for it...

CHANG: (Laughter).

ROBERTS: But if it were me trying to balance, I would go for former Senator Jon Kyl. He is one that would be a compromise that I think would be fairly acceptable to both sides. He also would give Arizona a little clout in the Senate, which is something we're going to be sorely missing.

CHANG: Actually, Kyl has been serving as the Sherpa, the person who's been accompanying Brett Kavanaugh throughout all his Senate one-on-ones.

ROBERTS: Correct. That's true.

CHANG: And who else?

ROBERTS: One, of course, is Cindy McCain, John McCain's widow. That, however, is not likely to happen. The Trump end of the party - their heads would explode. Those people have despised John McCain for years, and they would not like to see another McCain sitting in that seat.

It's really anybody's guess. But I would guess that the decision has long-ago been made. He will just wait till the appropriate time to announce it.

CHANG: So how do you think McCain's death might impact the race for the other Senate seat? I mean, that is a Senate seat that's now held by Jeff Flake, another very vocal critic of President Trump. Do you see McCain's death playing out in that race as well?

ROBERTS: Well, death, not so much. His life has played largely in this race. We have three Republican candidates who are running for the seat. The establishment's candidate would be Congresswoman Martha McSally. And then two of the far-right candidates, former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and...

CHANG: Who President Trump pardoned.

ROBERTS: Correct. And former state Senator Kelli Ward, who has been chasing a Trump endorsement, as they all have been. The three of them have spent the last six months trying to out-Trump each other.

Conventional wisdom is that the only one who could beat the Democrat in the race, who is Kyrsten Sinema, another congresswoman from here, would be Martha McSally. And even that will be a tough, tough fight.

CHANG: Now Martha McSally, the first woman ever to fly in combat - she was actually the choice of the Republican establishment. Have you seen her move to the right as she's been competing against Kelli Ward and Joe Arpaio?

ROBERTS: I would say that she has fairly lurched to the right. The reality is to win a primary election - a Republican primary election in Arizona, you've got to go to the right. But then, how do you pivot back to the center when you've been spending six months saying that I'm the Trumpiest (ph) of them all?

And every indication is, this year, that Democrats are going to turn out in a big way - the old blue wave is going to wash across the deserts of Arizona. And if that happens, then Martha McSally is going to have a hard time.

CHANG: Laurie Roberts is a columnist at The Arizona Republic. Thank you very much.

ROBERTS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.