Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has died, snuffing out one of the Senate’s most singular voices and removing one of President Trump’s fiercest Republican critics from the national arena.
McCain, the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 2008 and a power player for more than three decades in Washington, passed away after a lengthy battle with brain cancer. He was 81 years old.
The senator passed on Saturday afternoon, according to his Senate office.
“Senator John Sidney McCain III died at 4:28pm on August 25, 2018. With the Senator when he passed were his wife Cindy and their family. At his death, he had served the United States of America faithfully for sixty years,” his office said in a statement.
The two-time presidential contender was well known for his stubborn individuality, his larger-than-life personality — at turns irascible, charming, stubborn, funny and furious — and for a lifetime of service in the public sphere, from his time as a Vietnam-era Navy pilot and prisoner of war to his decades in Congress and on the American political stage.
Even in his final years McCain, known as “the maverick,” played an outsize and dramatic role in national politics.
The senator was the key vote that saved Obamacare last summer. In a moment that was vintage McCain, he kept voters across the country and his own colleagues in suspense before throwing a dramatic thumbs-down to send his party’s attempted repeal of the law to a one-vote defeat. The moment was his final grand gesture on the national political stage, and saved his 2008 presidential foe’s signature legislative achievement.
McCain, a Navy veteran whose father and grandfather were four-star admirals, was an aggressively hawkish lawmaker, long advocating for a muscular U.S. foreign policy. He was one of Obama’s top foreign policy critics, blasting him for how he handled crises in Ukraine and the Middle East. That stemmed from his deep-seated wariness towards Russian leader Vladimir Putin, whom he warned successive administrations not to trust.
He was one of the few Republicans who aggressively pushed for the United States to take steps to protect against future Russian political interference after the 2016 election, and battled against Trump’s attempts to ignore Russia early in his presidency. He became a vocal critic of Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-refugee stances, calling his travel ban a “self-inflicted wound.” While undergoing cancer treatment, McCain had been limited in recent months to furious statements blasting Trump for his ongoing embrace of Putin, making him one of the GOP’s few prominent voices willing to take on the president.
Trump, for his part, saw little reason to stop attacking a man who he famously mocked for being captured during the Vietnam War — his insults towards McCain continued almost up to the senator’s dying day.
McCain’s principled, stubborn streak was what first brought him national renown. After being shot down in Vietnam, beaten by locals, refused medical treatment and tortured by his captors, he refused to be released because of his father’s high rank until other POWs who were captured before him were released. He ended up spending almost six years in captivity, and lived with limited arm mobility the rest of his life.
McCain had a solidly conservative record throughout his years in Congress, with a fiery hawkishness on foreign affairs going back to his first House election in 1982 and continuing through his 32 years in the Senate. But he’ll likely be best remembered for his high-profile splits with his own party on campaign finance reform, immigration and Obamacare repeal.
He often sparred with members of his own party, from his testy primary battle with future President George W. Bush in 2000 to a long-running dispute with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) over campaign finance regulations to attacks on “wacko bird” Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) for disagreeing with his national security views. While McCain mostly mended fences with Bush after their nasty primary, he was a vocal critic of Bush’s support of waterboarding and worked in a bipartisan fashion to ban the process.
He also built close bipartisan friendships of the kind that are almost unheard of in modern Washington, most notably with former Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), who he bonded with doing work on Vietnam reconciliation, and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), a former Democratic vice presidential nominee he almost chose as his own running mate in 2008. Lieberman was one of the “three amigos,” along with McCain and his closest friend in politics, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
McCain long fought for comprehensive immigration reform, playing a major role in the mid-2000s attempts and again in 2013, when the Senate passed a bill by a wide margin that the House refused to take up.
While he prided himself on his maverick persona, McCain didn’t always stand up to fight his party’s political tides. He backed off his push for comprehensive immigration reform while facing a tough primary challenge in 2010, and in 2016 largely avoided sparring with then-candidate Donald Trump as he warded off another right-wing challenger. His long fight for campaign finance reform came after a Senate committee reprimanded him for “poor judgment” for his role in meeting with regulators to help Charles Keating, a local tycoon whose savings and loan company was under investigation.
McCain’s choice of then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) for his vice-presidential nominee set in motion a dramatic shift in his party’s politics that he spent much of his final years battling. The nomination turned Palin into a national star, helped trigger the rise of the Tea Party and paved the way for Trump’s own brand of loose-with-the-facts populist conservatism. McCain said last May, as his health declined, that he regretted choosing Palin as his running mate.
McCain often seemed more comfortable in front of the cameras than in the trenches on policy details, at least outside of his areas of national security expertise. His most significant legislative achievement in his three decades in the Senate, a bipartisan campaign finance reform act pushed through with Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), was largely ineffectual from the start and was further kneecapped by the Supreme Court just a few years after its passage.
His longtime push to kill earmarks was successful, but only after it became a rallying cry for the Tea Party as well. His final legislative accomplishment came as he shepherded through a major boost in military spending as head of the Senate Armed Services Committee late last year. That bill became law early this year.
McCain’s death throws both his home state and the Senate into political turmoil, opening up a seat he held for three decades and felling one of the few Republicans who has been routinely willing to buck his own party leaders and Trump on major legislation.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) will appoint a replacement for McCain until 2020, a choice that could have ramifications for both the Senate and Ducey’s own political prospects (he is up for reelection this fall).
Politicians of both parties had already been jostling behind the scenes for the seat as McCain’s health deteriorated, and it’s unclear whether Ducey will appoint a caretaker — possibly Cindy McCain or former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) — or pick someone who will run for reelection.
Republicans who have signaled interest in the seat include former Rep. John Shadegg (R-AZ) and Reps. Matt Salmon (R-AZ) and Paul Gosar (R-AZ). Other potential candidates include Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ), University of Arizona Board of Regents member Karrin Robson and former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R). McCain’s 2016 primary rival, former state Sen. Kelli Ward (R), expressed interest soon after McCain announced his prognosis last year, but is unlikely to be chosen.
Democrats are hopeful they can put up a strong fight for the seat in the purple-trending state. They have long buzzed about former NASA pilot Mark Kelly, former Rep. Gabby Giffords’ (D-AZ) husband, as a possible statewide candidate. Other possible contenders include Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton (D), who’s currently a House candidate, and Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ).