Who will be the Senate’s next John McCain?
(CNN)Senators were packed cheek-by-jowl into the Capitol Rotunda on Friday, gathered to honor the life and mourn the death of their one-time colleague John McCain.
Like him or hate him — and there were plenty of people on both sides — no one questioned that McCain was one of the major players in the Senate. When major debates — whether over torture, US military commitments abroad or immigration — happened, McCain was in the middle of them. The Gang of 14. The Gang of 8. Campaign finance reform. Health care reform. If there was a controversial issue where the Senate was deadlocked, McCain made sure he was part of the effort to fix it. (That tendency drew him criticism in some circles from people who saw him as seeking the limelight rather than trying to actually solve problems.)
McCain also functioned — particularly in his later years — as a conscience of the Senate. He was someone who famously talked about putting country over party, who insisted that doing what was right was more important that doing what the president of his party or the Senate leader of his party believed. As a result, McCain regularly broke with conservative orthodoxy, not because he wanted to stick it to his party’s leadership (although oftentimes he did just that), but because he believed he was doing what was right, staying true to his own core principles.
Politics abhors a vacuum. Which means that maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but sooner than you think, there will be a need for a McCain-like figure to emerge in the Senate. (Notice I said “McCain-like.” Not McCain. Because McCain’s experience — his service to the country in both the military and political spheres — is simply not something that can be replicated.) Below are my thoughts on five senators who might fill that space — based on past Senate track record, personal style and policy views. (A number of potential McCain heirs — Kelly Ayotte, Bob Corker and even Jeff Flake have left or are leaving the Senate this year.)
The South Carolina Republican was McCain’s closest friend in the chamber — some combination of best buddy and little brother. Graham spoke eloquently and emotionally from the Senate about the loss of his friend; “My name is Graham, not McCain,” he said. “But I feel like a McCain. I don’t know if I have earned that honor, but I feel like it.” Graham and McCain were drawn to one another because they had lots in common: Military service (Graham served in the Air Force), a belief in a robust US military presence around the world, a great sense of humor and, most importantly, a willingness to speak their minds — even when it hurt their party or their own politics.
The Nebraska senator, who attended McCain’s memorial service in Arizona, recounted jokingly that when he first ran for office in 2014, McCain endorsed one of his primary challengers. But the two men found common cause in a desire to return the Senate to the way it once functioned. In his first speech on the Senate floor in November 2015, Sasse condemned the “institutional decline” of the chamber in recent years, adding: “The Senate isn’t tackling the great national problems that worry those we work for.” Sasse, like McCain, emerged in the 2016 campaign as a persistent critic of Donald Trump’s candidacy. “Mr. Trump’s relentless focus is on dividing Americans, and on tearing down rather than building back up this glorious nation,” Sasse wrote in a Facebook post in February 2016. In a bit of inside Senate baseball, Sasse was put on the Armed Services Committee in 2015, the committee that McCain chaired until his death.
Yes, I know Jones is a Democrat and McCain was a Republican. And that Jones has only been in the Senate for a few months — following his stunning 2017 victory in the Alabama special election race. But Jones’ political necessities — he’s a Democrat in Alabama — and the likely narrowly divided Senate could well turn him into a dealmaker in the mold of McCain. Shortly after coming to the Senate, Jones told reporters not to “expect me to vote solidly for Republicans or Democrats.” One problem for the Jones-as-the-next-McCain idea? He’s up for a full term in 2020 and will be a major Republican target.
In McCain’s absence from the Senate over the past year, the Alaska senator and Maine’s Susan Collins have emerged as key swing votes, courted by both Republicans and Democrats. Murkowski, like McCain, is a product of the family business. For McCain, that was the military, for Murkowski, politics; her father, Frank served in the Senate and as governor in Alaska. And, Murkowski, like McCain, has tousled with her party’s conservative right — and won. After losing a Republican primary to conservative attorney Joe Miller in 2010, Murkowski ran and won a write-in candidacy in the general election. She also was willing to speak her mind about Trump; in the wake of the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape in the fall of 2016, Murkowski, who never endorsed Trump, said that he had “forfeited the right to be our party’s nominee.”
While Graham is widely regarded as McCain’s logical Senate heir, there’s a case to be made that fellow South Carolina Sen. Scott could follow in the Arizonan’s footsteps as well. Scott, like McCain, is often described as a happy warrior — someone who presents the positive attributes of being a Republican rather than harping on the negative characteristics of political opponents. (Read this National Review profile of Scott to get a sense of the approach he takes to politics.) Scott also has a hugely compelling personal story — he was raised by a single mother and became the first African-American Republican member of Congress from the south since Reconstruction when he was elected to a Charleston-area House seat in 2010. (Scott was appointed to the Senate by then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley in 2013.) And like McCain, Scott has been the subject of rumors about the possibility of a presidential run almost since he came into the chamber. That can be a distraction, of course, but also may mean Scott will be more willing to inject himself into major national issues facing the Senate going forward.