Is Sarah Palin Establishing Residency in Arizona to Run for John McCain's Vacated Senate Seat in 2016?
Is this Senator McCain’s last term?
Will Sen. John McCain’s current term be his last?
Arizona’s senior Republican senator this year has reclaimed his role as a key bipartisan deal-maker on comprehensive immigration reform, a priority he downplayed while under intense scrutiny from conservative activists during the 2008 GOP presidential primaries and his 2010 Senate re-election campaign.
His return to the center on such a volatile issue — many “tea party” voters still oppose what they view as “amnesty” for illegal immigrants — has renewed speculation among Capitol Hill insiders that McCain is focusing on his legacy and feels he has nothing to lose politically by provoking the far right of his party.
Political observers say McCain’s passionate push to complete comprehensive immigration reform, combined with other signs, might indicate that he doesn’t intend to seek a sixth Senate term three years from now.
For his part, McCain said he has not decided whether to run, although the 76-year-old joked to The Arizona Republic that he anticipates “people inquiring daily as to my health” as his term progresses.
He also disputes the notion that he has not been consistent on immigration reform and questions why his part in the current deliberations would be taken as any sort of a signal of his future political intentions.
McCain also says he has detected a change in the public’s mood, even among Republicans, toward supporting immigration reform.
“I don’t see any connection between that and something that I would decide in a couple of years,” McCain said.
More than four years after his loss to President Barack Obama in the 2008 election, McCain has remained relevant in the Senate.
Besides establishing himself as a crucial GOP member of the Senate’s so-called Gang of Eight working on immigration reform, McCain was central to the recent compromise that largely preserved the Senate’s filibuster procedure and emerged as a key player in the national debates over Obama’s nominations for Defense secretary and secretary of State.
He is recognized as a leading GOP voice on national security and foreign affairs and has maintained a high profile on national television news shows.
“He’s not acting like somebody who is starting to box up his office,” said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes U.S. Senate races for the nonpartisan “Cook Political Report.”
But others wonder if McCain’s long political career may be winding down.
Last year, he donated $9 million in surplus campaign funds to help Arizona State University launch the McCain Institute for International Leadership.
He said at the time he could always raise more money should he decide to seek re-election, but added that serving amid the “incompetency” on Capitol Hill was “very dispiriting sometimes.” Democrats have controlled the Senate since 2007, leaving McCain and his fellow Republicans in the minority.
Other senators have expressed similar frustration upon leaving office.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., last week announced that he will not seek re-election in 2014, joining fellow Sens. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., in deciding to retire. And longtime McCain friends such as Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., already have recently left the Senate.
“Setting up a McCain Institute would suggest that he is looking at his legacy now,” said Fred Solop, a professor of politics and international affairs at Northern Arizona University. “Honestly, he is getting older. It’s more difficult to play out the role of a U.S. senator and a leading statesperson.”
So far, age hasn’t seemed to slow him down. McCain will turn 80 in 2016, the year he comes up for re-election. He continues to keep a vigorous schedule, last month traveling to Egypt, Jordan and Israel. His mother, Roberta McCain, earlier this month celebrated her 101st birthday.
But after White House runs in 2000 and 2008 that were unsuccessful, two House terms and 41/2 Senate terms — not to mention the more than five years he spent as a prisoner of war in Vietnam before his rise in politics — McCain may be reaching a point where he doesn’t have anything left to prove in Washington, said Bruce Merrill, a veteran political scientist and senior research fellow at ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy.
“He has become such a powerful person in Washington that if his health is good, there isn’t anybody in Arizona who would defeat him,” said Merrill, who has followed McCain’s political career since his first House race in 1982. “So it’s just going to be his choice, I think, in terms of whether or not he would want to run again.”
While McCain has not dropped hints about his long-term plans, upwardly mobile politicians are keeping an eye on his seat.
Republicans commonly mentioned as possible McCain successors include Reps. Trent Franks, Matt Salmon and David Schweikert; former Rep. John Shadegg; and former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods.
Potential Democratic contenders include Janet Napolitano, Obama’s Homeland Security secretary and a former Arizona governor; Mark Kelly, the retired astronaut husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz.; Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.; and former Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon. Richard Carmona, the former U.S. surgeon general who narrowly lost to Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., in last year’s race for Kyl’s seat, has said he is considering a possible run for governor in 2014. If he opts not to, Carmona also likely would be considered a possible Democratic frontrunner for the Senate seat.
“Nobody knows, but if they have any ambition at all, they don’t want to take a chance of not being in the game at the last minute,” Merrill said. “I think you’ll see a lot of jockeying for his Senate seat.”
More than anything, McCain’s re-emergence as a champion of comprehensive immigration reform has renewed speculation about his future.
He was a longtime advocate for fixing the nation’s broken immigration system, co-authoring with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., a bill that passed the Senate in 2006. He also supported a subsequent attempt at comprehensive reform sponsored by Kennedy and Kyl in 2007, but came under fire for it while on the Republican presidential campaign trail in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Responding to the outcry from anti-“amnesty” conservatives, McCain pivoted to a position requiring a secured U.S.-Mexican border before proceeding with other reforms such as a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the country or a guest-worker program.
“I will secure the borders before we do anything else,” McCain told a critic of his immigration legislation at a 2007 town-hall meeting in Hampton, N.H. “The borders have to be secured. I got the message. Got it.”
In 2010 — the year of the tea-party uprising — McCain was challenged in his Senate primary from the right by former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, a conservative border hardliner and radio commentator who attacked him as too liberal on the issue. McCain crushed Hayworth in part by continuing to emphasize the need for increased border security first. In a memorable television ad from the campaign, McCain called for completion of “the danged fence” while walking along the border with Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu.
During that race, McCain even rejected his longtime reputation as a political “maverick.”
More recently, McCain has said public attitudes have since softened toward some of the more controversial provisions included in comprehensive immigration reform, and more Republicans are coming to realize that opposition to it could continue to hurt their national prospects in presidential elections. Obama defeated McCain in 2008 and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012 among Latino voters.
“Listen, I’m sometimes entertained by this business that, ‘McCain has changed his position,’” McCain toldThe Republic. “Look, I’ve always said we’ve got to secure the border first. And I said it in 2010, I said it in 2007 and I said it yesterday.”
Flake, who like McCain is a member of the Senate group collaborating on comprehensive immigration-reform legislation, echoed McCain by saying it’s a stretch to suggest that McCain’s work on the issue is a harbinger of his retirement.
“I don’t know if you can read that into it,” Flake said. “He’s taken a leadership role on a lot of things in the past. That’s just his manner. Whatever the issue, he’s out front.”
Maverick ‘once again’
But other observers have noticed McCain shifting back toward the center and say it seems to reflect a certain sense of liberation from electoral pressures.
“Nothing’s pushing him right now to make a decision, so we’re not going to know for a while, but it seems to me that it’s the maverick McCain once again,” Solop said. “Post-presidential election and post-Senate election, he can really stake out his own territory.”
Jack August Jr., an Arizona political historian and author, called McCain “a unique brand” in the state’s history and a skillful, pragmatic politician.
“If you really take the long view, it’s kind of remarkable that, as the Republican electorate in Arizona has tacked to the right, he has been able to ride that wave, win his primaries and then the general election,” August said. “I think John McCain, if he chose to run, would be very difficult to beat because he has reached, in his own and unique way, institutional status.”
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