Why John McCain's Wife Could Inherit His Senate Seat

John Cindy McCain Senator Seat
Photo: Ron Edmonds/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Arizona Senator John McCain passed away this weekend, just days after his family announced he would no longer be receiving treatment for cancer. While analysts keep an eye on just how petty President Trump’s reaction could be to the loss of his recent political foe, this passing will trigger another relative rarity in American politics: an open senate seat in the middle of an unfinished term. This means that in the very near future, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey will be tasked with appointing McCain’s replacement. And because 2018 can't get any weirder, one of the names being floated is that of his widow, Cindy McCain.

This may sound like straight-up nepotism pulled directly from a plot on The Crown — or a twist on Ivanka Trump's five-year plan — but not only is it perfectly legal, it is very much an established American historical precedent. Almost 50 female members of Congress inherited their seats from their husbands, with the goal of smoothing the transition, carrying on their husbands' legacy, and minimizing intra-party conflict over which man would be the next to ascend. Widows were so popular (and so useful!), that the practice even developed its own name — "Widow's succession," or "widow's mandate." (This does not make it sound any less like a weird Crown plot line. Or the entire Succession plot line.)

And Cindy is as likely a candidate for this type of rise as any. After decades in public service alongside her husband, she has accumulated her own resume as a philanthropist and crusader specifically against human trafficking. Recently, she had been representing John McCain at official events as his health was failing. Indeed, Cindy McCain's name leads this AZ Central roundup of potentials to fill her husband's seat.

Here's the gist of how this could happen: According to the Seventeenth Amendment, Governor Ducey gets to appoint a replacement to take the seat until a special election can occur, which will be in 2020 (McCain’s term ran through 2022). Historically, these widows have proven a solid choice for keeping things on an even keel, and in many cases dutifully stepped aside once they had served their terms. (Consider this an early example of the Glass Cliff, or bringing in a woman to clean up a mess created by men, with less fanfare — or credit — than would otherwise be given to a man.)

But some of these mandated widows weren't simply there as placeholders. Massachusetts Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers and Lindy Boggs, the first woman elected to Congress from Louisiana, who ran to fill her late-husband Hale Boggs’ vacated seat (and was also the mother of broadcaster Cokie Roberts), each went on to have long careers in office. Hattie Wyatt Caraway was the first widow who ran for re-election following her appointment to the Senate (in 1932!), but of the seven other widow-appointees in the Senate thus far, only Maurine Neuberger sought (and won) re-election. In her own category entirely, the legendary Margaret Chase Smith was elected to the House to replace her deceased husband, was re-elected, and then ran successfully for the Senate — then she ran for president, becoming the first woman nominee for a major political party.

The widow’s succession is part of the history of women holding elected office in this country, and so it's also part of the history of white women being privileged in the political process. In a Congress dominated by white men, every single beneficiary of this political peccadillo has thus far been a white woman.

Which bring us back to Cindy McCain, and the perfectly legitimate and historically established possibility that she could be appointed as her husband's successor. Adding to the drama of whether she will or won't, is the fact that the governor who gets to decide may not be Governor much longer. There is a primary in Arizona tomorrow. (Yes, tomorrow. So much for a chill last week of summer.) Ducey's more hard-line and Trump-favoring opponent, former Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, has been publicly braying that he wouldn't appoint Cindy McCain should he have the chance, which he tweeted indecorously back in May, well prior to McCain's death. Ducey has nimbly sidestepped the political landmine, declaring that he will not make any announcement until Senator McCain is laid to rest this Sunday, September 2nd, in Annapolis.

But what would another Senator McCain — that is, Senator Cindy McCain — mean, politically? Quite a bit, actually. Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh begin on September 4th, and as of last week, the Republicans had a one-vote majority in the Senate, which meant that the nomination could fail with just one GOP “no” vote. We have no way of knowing how Cindy McCain would handle this question, though as recently as July her late-husband issued a statement firmly in Kavanaugh’s favor. And considering that widows often ascend to their late husbands’ seats precisely to fulfill their outstanding promises, well, this may be something of a hint.

We do know that whomever Ducey chooses for this opening will be a Republican (not only because that’s Ducey’s party, but because it was McCain’s, and Arizona law requires that the replacement be from the same party as the departed). But right now, Republicans are not all speaking with one voice. And while common sense would suggest that any Republican appointee would pledge to vote with the party on its most critical nomination, we are heading into a fall of truly extraordinary circumstances, where a Supreme Court judge might well be called to hear a case in which the president who nominated him may be charged with a crime.

So: Is handing down a Senate seat to the widow of the man who just held it any less democratic than handing it off to a political pal? The good news is, no — it's totally legit! Plus, that’s actually how many women first got into Congress, and were able to demonstrate that, in fact, women are up to the job. If nothing else, this pathway reinforces the old adage that politics is local — sometimes as local as the other side of the bed.

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