Quiet jockeying for McCain seat angers Republicans

PHOENIX — Ambitious Republicans anxious for a shot at a U.S. Senate seat have begun quietly jockeying to be appointed as the successor to Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain to produce 'Don't Sweat the Small Stuff' Lifetime movie starring Heather Locklear An August ultimatum: No recess until redistricting reform is done Meghan McCain on Pelosi, McCarthy fight: 'I think they're all bad' MORE (R), even as he battles an aggressive form of brain cancer.

The lobbying campaigns, described to The Hill by half a dozen GOP strategists and aides, have angered many Republicans, who see any public chatter as disrespectful to a senator who has helped shape modern Arizona.

Chief among those upset is the man who would make an appointment, Gov. Doug Ducey (R), who issued a brushback pitch during a radio appearance last week.

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“I have found it a little bit off color, some of the prognosticators and pundits who have been making these predictions as to the senator's outcome. I think people should be praying for him and rooting for him,” Ducey told KTAR radio. “To the politicians out there that have been openly lobbying for this position, they've basically disqualified themselves by showing their true character.”

Observers in Phoenix interpreted Ducey’s comments as a shot at three politicians who have been open about their interest in a Senate seat: Rep. Paul GosarPaul Anthony GosarPress: Inmates have taken over the asylum 57 House Republicans back Georgia against DOJ voting rights lawsuit Gosar's siblings pen op-ed urging for his resignation: 'You are immune to shame' MORE (R), former state Sen. Kelli Ward (R) and former Rep. Matt SalmonMatthew (Matt) James SalmonThe Hill's Morning Report - After high-stakes Biden-Putin summit, what now? Former Rep. Matt Salmon launches gubernatorial bid in Arizona On The Trail: Arizona is microcosm of battle for the GOP MORE (R).

Gosar’s interest in serving in the Senate is hardly concealed, Republican operatives said.

He conducted polling measuring his standing in the race to replace retiring Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeBiden nominates former Sen. Tom Udall as New Zealand ambassador Biden to nominate Jane Hartley as UK ambassador: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Voting rights will be on '22, '24 ballots MORE (R) earlier this year, and his chief of staff has emailed a member of Ducey's staff about McCain's seat, according to three sources with knowledge of the conversation.

“At this time my prayers are with Sen. McCain. There will be a time and a place for any political discussion in due course,” Gosar said in a statement to The Hill.

Ward, who challenged McCain in the 2016 Republican primary, said shortly after McCain was diagnosed with cancer that he should resign — and that she should be considered to replace him. 

“We are laser focused is on winning Jeff Flake’s seat, which we are in prime position to do,” said Ed Rollins, Ward's campaign chairman. “If a situation arises where an appointment is needed, the governor should appoint another strong conservative, who can partner with Dr. Ward after she wins.”

Salmon, who is now the top lobbyist at Arizona State University, has made his interest in the seat known, though more tactfully than the others. Salmon had lunch with Ducey's chief of staff earlier this month — something his allies made known among top Republicans around the capital — though a source close to the former congressman said the appointment did not come up.

“He has an interest in serving in the Senate, yes, but he has no interest in lobbying for a vacancy that doesn't exist,” the source close to Salmon said. “He feels he has absolutely no role in that decision anyway.”

Former Rep. John Shadegg (R) is also said to be on the list of candidates who would be considered to fill a vacancy. McCain is close to Grant Woods, his chief of staff when McCain served in the House and later a two-term attorney general.

Shadegg did not respond to an email, and Woods could not be reached during the holidays.

After a health scare two weeks ago, McCain returned home to Arizona to spend the holidays with his family. He tweeted on Dec. 18 that he was “looking forward to returning to work after the holidays.”

McCain's spokeswoman declined to comment for this story. A spokesman in Ducey's office, too, declined to comment.

Several Republicans who have seen McCain lately say he remains in a wheelchair, a side effect of the treatment regimen he is undergoing, and that he is still engaged on issues that matter to him.

Cindy McCain is giving Ducey's office and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: Trump asks court to block release of tax returns to Congress | Private sector adds 330K jobs in July, well short of expectations Senate panel advances first three spending bills McConnell lays out GOP demands for government-funding deal MORE’s (R-Ky.) office regular updates on her husband's progress, those Republicans said.

Arizona is already a key battleground in the war for control of the Senate. Flake's decision to retire, after polls showed him trailing Ward in the GOP primary, have given Democrats their best opportunity to compete for a Senate seat in the state since Dennis DeConcini retired in 1994. Even Republican stalwarts see Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D) as a strong contender.

Ward, who met with President TrumpDonald TrumpMajority of Americans in new poll say it would be bad for the country if Trump ran in 2024 ,800 bottle of whiskey given to Pompeo by Japan is missing Liz Cheney says her father is 'deeply troubled' about the state of the Republican Party MORE last week at his Mar-a-Lago estate, remains the Republican front-runner. She is likely to face a challenge from Rep. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallySchumer, Tim Scott lead as Senate fundraising pace heats up GOP group launches million ad campaign pressing Kelly on filibuster Democrats facing tough reelections back bipartisan infrastructure deal MORE (R), who has told colleagues she will run but who has yet to make her bid official. In an interview last week, McConnell called McSally one of his top recruits.

Arizona state law allows the governor to appoint a replacement if a Senate seat becomes vacant. If the vacancy occurs at least six months before the next general election, voters would pick a candidate to fill the remainder of the unexpired term. That means Arizona could have two Senate seats on the ballot in November, a prospect some Republicans fear as political winds appear to shift toward Democrats.