PHOENIX -- Gubernatorial hopeful Ken Bennett is using the question of who would replace John McCain if and when the senator quits or dies to round up votes and raise money for his gubernatorial campaign.
In an email Friday, the former secretary of state doubled-down on his earlier vow not to appoint Cindy McCain to fill any vacancy. And he said those who share his viewpoint should donate $5, a bid to get at least 4,000 of those small donations to qualify for $839,704 in public funding for the GOP primary.
"U.S. Senate seats are not family heirlooms,'' Bennett said in an interview with Capitol Media Services. "When people vote for an elected official, that does not mean that they are voting for their spouse to take over their position if something happens to them.''
But Bennett also conceded that part of his decision to air his views on the potential of a Sen. Cindy McCain -- assuming he ever gets to be in a position to name a replacement for her husband -- is strictly political. And that includes tapping into Republican voters who are not fans of McCain in his effort to deny incumbent Doug Ducey the GOP nomination..
"You look for where your potential votes are and you differentiate yourself to those groups so that you try to get their vote,'' Bennett said.
And the way he sees it, he said, his views on McCain are linked to his bid to defeat Ducey.
Bennett said he supported McCain in the past because the senator, in campaigning for reelection in 2016, promised to vote to get rid of the Affordable Care Act. But when the issue came up for a vote last year, McCain was the deciding -- and highly visible -- "no'' vote with a televised "thumbs down.''
"We're always looking for what's our potential audience within the primary voter domain, where can we get our votes,'' he said. More to the point, he said any bid to oust an incumbent must be based on showing would-be voters the differences.
How that all relates to his bid to defeat Ducey, Bennett said, is that the senator, ahead of voting against repeal, said his position would be "largely guided by Gov. Ducey's analysis of how it would impact the people of our state.''
"Ducey and McCain are pretty tight,'' Bennett said.
More to the immediate point, he said that defeating an incumbent means pointing up the differences.
"Now if that happens to also coalesce and or correspond with people who didn't like McCain not following through with his promise not to repeal Obamacare, at Ducey's request, then yes.'' Bennett explained. "So if I end up tapping into both of those at the same time, that's what you do in an election.''
The reason who might succeed McCain stems from the speculation that has arisen since the senator announced he has an incurable form of brain cancer.
By Arizona law, the governor gets to name replacements for the U.S. Senate, though not the House.
Had McCain quit before the end of last month, that replacement would serve only until this year's election, at which point whoever won would fill out the balance of the term that runs through 2022.
With that deadline passed, the soonest there would be an election for McCain's replacement -- assuming he's still not serving at that time -- would be 2020. And all that could come next year when Ducey or someone else is sworn in as governor.
When Bennett was running for secretary of state in 2010 he supported McCain who was in his own reelection campaign.
"And I probably supported him again in 2016,'' Bennett said. All that changed, he said, with that thumbs-down vote on Obamacare repeal.
What gave Bennett the opportunity to bring up the whole subject has been speculation in some conservative media outlets that the fix was in to have Ducey appoint Cindy McCain to the seat.
The governor, for his part, has repeatedly brushed aside such rumors.
"There is no vacancy,'' he said as recently as Thursday in an interview with KTAR, several days after the governor and his wife, Angela, visited the McCains at their cabin near Cornville. He called Bennett's comments "indecent.''
"They say more about the person that said them than I ever could,'' the governor said. And Ducey said the trip to the McCains was something that had been planned for awhile.
But the speculation has not cooled, with neither Ducey nor press aide Daniel Scarpinato issuing an outright denial that the subject has come up.
While Bennett may be searching for GOP votes, he did himself no favors with party officials.
"I am disappointed in you,'' party Chairman Jonathan Lines wrote in a tweet.
"Regardless of your personal feelings towards the McCains this type of attack has zero place in our party or our state,'' the message continued. "You've disqualified yourself from leading our state.''
Bennett has dabbled with the conservative wing of the GOP before.
In 2012, as Barack Obama was seeking reelection, Bennett, as the state's chief elections officer, announced he was requesting that officials in Hawaii provide verification that the president was, in fact, born there before deciding whether to place his name on the Arizona ballot. Bennett, then weighing a 2014 bid for governor, said he received more than 1,000 requests from constituents to verify the president is a "natural-born citizen'' and therefore eligible to hold the highest office in the land.
Bennett later backed off after saying he had received certification from Hawaii officials that it did have such a birth certificate.
In his latest campaign, Bennett also has taken on some help in his gubernatorial campaign from those who have long been McCain foes. That starts with Christine Bauserman, an organizer of United Republican Alliance of Principled Conservatives who worked on on Trump's election campaign and ended up with a job at the Department of Interior.
She didn't keep that post, however, after CNN earlier this year exposed how she used her social media accounts to share conspiracy theories and make anti-Muslim statements.
"The positions expressed by Ms. Bauserman are inappropriate and unacceptable, and they are not consistent with those of the Secretary or the Trump administration,'' Heather Swift, a spokeswoman for the Department of Interior said on accepting Bauserman's letter of resignation.
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