Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey wants her approval heading into a tough gubernatorial election.
Arizona Sen. John McCain’s widow Cindy hasn’t expressed any desire to serve out her late husband’s term in Washington — but she will wield immense influence over the selection of his replacement.
More than a dozen McCain family friends and Republicans familiar with the search said that while Cindy McCain isn’t expected to take an active political role, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey wants to avoid alienating her as he heads into a tough reelection fight.
“If the family expressed interest in a particular attribute that McCain’s successor would have,” said Arizona Republican strategist Chuck Coughlin, “my instinct is that [Ducey] would honor that.”
In interviews, McCain friends said Cindy McCain hadn’t brought up politics in recent weeks. “She spent the last year at John’s side as they’ve gotten through this illness and that’s all that she’s been focused on,” said one friend.
But Cindy McCain became a flashpoint in the gubernatorial race after Ducey’s opponent in Tuesday’s Republican primary, Ken Bennett, vowed in May not to appoint her to her husband’s seat — a pledge that was interpreted by many as a play for conservative votes by Bennett, who made his name as Arizona secretary of state by calling for independent verification of former President Barack Obama’s birth certificate before he could be listed on state ballots.
In an interview at the time, Ducey called Bennett’s pledge not to appoint her “indecent, embarrassing and revealing.” But that only caused Bennett to further dig in on the governor’s connections to the family. He used the governor’s response to tweet that his office “does not deny media reports that Ducey plans to appoint” Cindy McCain.
Ducey, who has a close relationship with Vice President Mike Pence, won Trump’s endorsement on Monday — raising the stakes as he tries to satisfy voters loyal to the president and moderates who gave McCain six consecutive terms in the Senate.
Ducey’s campaign declined comment on Tuesday ahead of the state primary, which Ducey won. The governor so far hasn’t engaged publicly in the McCain replacement sweepstakes before the senator’s funeral on Sunday.
A spokeswoman for the family did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Other widows have gotten directly involved in politics after their husbands’ deaths including former Missouri first lady Jean Carnahan, whose husband Mel won posthumous election to the Senate in 2000 weeks after being killed in a plane crash; Muriel Humphrey Brown of Minnesota, who was appointed to fill the seat of the late Sen. Hubert Humphrey after he was vice president; Maryon Pittman Allen of Alabama, a journalist who briefly served after Sen. James B. Allen died in office in 1978; and Jocelyn Birch Burdick of North Dakota; the first woman from the state to hold the office after the death of Sen. Quentin Burdick in 1992.
But Cindy McCain has not thought of herself as a political figure, according to people who know her. During her husband’s 2008 presidential campaign, Cindy McCain relayed a story to aides about a woman who approached her and immediately gushed about the encounter: “I can’t believe I get to meet you,” the woman said. Cindy McCain was genuinely taken aback, one adviser said in recalling the incident.
“Cindy was kind of like, ‘Really?’” the staffer said. “I think she had understood service, understood that ethos and stuff, but I don’t think she needed the validation of electoral politics in her personal life. I don’t see that changing today.”
“It is a mistake to understand the McCains as a political family,” the staffer added. “They’re a military family first and a political family second.”
Chuck Larson, a former Iowa Republican lawmaker and ambassador, who was part of John McCain’s presidential kitchen Cabinet during the 2008 campaign, said Cindy McCain, who chairs the family beer distribution business founded by her father, is anchored in those responsibilities.
“She was extremely helpful on the campaign in ’08 and leading up to it,” Larson said. “But she’s a businesswoman. My observation is that’s where her focus has been.”
She has gotten involved in political causes as co-chair of the Arizona Governor’s Council on human trafficking and serves on the McCain Institute’s Human Trafficking Advisory Council, and is a member of the board of directors for the nonprofit Operation Smile.
“Given the political world as it is today, why go do this?” said Reed Galen, who served as deputy campaign manager for McCain in 2008. “Not because it wouldn’t be a good tribute to her husband, but is that, A) the right reason to do it? and B) given the ugliness that we’ve seen around McCain’s passing, why would anyone in their right mind subject themselves to that?”
Trump, who received five deferments and did not serve in Vietnam, had a strained relationship with the senator after criticizing McCain for being captured during the war and questioning his heroism.
Late in the 2016 campaign, the senator announced that he and he wife would not be voting for Trump after the release of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape where Trump could be heard speaking in lewd terms about women.
After the election, the McCains and Trumps attempted to mend the relationship, gathering for dinner at the White House with Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a close McCain friend who golfs with the president.
In February, the relationship again seemed to sour. Cindy McCain joined her daughter Meghan on ABC’s “The View” a few days after Trump, without naming him, had criticized John McCain’s vote against an Obamacare repeal effort at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “I think the president fails to understand this, but more importantly, in my own — from my own feeling, we need more compassion, we need more empathy, we need more togetherness in terms of working together,” McCain said at the time. “We don’t need more bullying, and I’m tired of it.”
She also spoke out after Kelly Sadler, then a communications aide in the Trump administration, mocked John McCain’s brain cancer and, in a closed-door meeting with colleagues in May, reportedly suggested his views could be factored out of Senate confirmation votes because “he’s dying anyway.”
“May I remind you my husband has a family, 7 children and 5 grandchildren,” Cindy McCain tweeted in a direct rebuke to Sadler.
But a second McCain family friend said the family was glad to see the gesture Trump ultimately sent on Monday — lowering White House flags back to half-staff and issuing a proclamation in remembrance of the senator’s years of service.