PHOENIX — John McCain’s first congressional chief of staff, a former Republican state attorney general, is weighing a run for McCain’s seat when it becomes available in 2020 — as a Democrat.
“What changed for me is the passing of John McCain,” Grant Woods told Capitol Media Services on Wednesday.
He said that not only caused him to reflect on McCain’s role as someone willing to speak out, but about what his absence will mean for politics in Arizona and nationally, particularly in the age of President Trump.
For the moment, the seat is occupied by Jon Kyl, appointed this week by Gov. Doug Ducey in the wake of McCain’s death to fill the seat until the 2020 election. At that point there would be another election to fill out the last two years of McCain’s original six-year term.
Woods said he’s convinced Arizona is looking for someone in the McCain mold rather than a Trump sycophant. And he could be that someone, he said.
Woods is no stranger to bucking the party line.
As far back as 2010 the Maricopa County Republican Committee stripped him of his power as a precinct committeeman to vote on matters of party platform and other issues. His offense: publicly supporting Democrat Felecia Rotellini for attorney general — a job he held for eight years through 1998 — over Republican Tom Horne.
Four years ago, Woods backed Democrat Fred DuVal for governor over Republican Ducey. And just this year he helped push an initiative to undo legislation approved by Republican lawmakers to allow more groups and individuals to influence elections through anonymous financial donations.
But Woods, who has a law practice, has eschewed another bid at politics, at least until now.
“These are not ordinary times,” he said. “The country, I think, is really in a chaotic, difficult place. So I have to do some real soul searching and just make a decision here.”
Some of the urging, he said, comes from people he knows in Washington. But he’s also getting a big push here in Arizona, although not from Republicans.
Former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson said he has set up an online petition to “draft” Woods to run in 2020. Johnson, a Democrat turned independent, said he would prefer for Woods to run without party affiliation but understands that may not be the best path forward.
Woods, for his part, said an independent candidacy might make sense. But that has its own hurdles. “You’d have to run with a lot of money behind you,” he said.
Even that guarantees nothing. In 1986, Democrat-turned-independent Bill Schulz spent $2.2 million, a large sum for the time, in his bid to become governor. But all that likely ended up doing is siphoning votes from Democrat nominee Carolyn Warner, paving the way for Republican Evan Mecham to get elected with a plurality of the votes cast.
That’s why Woods said he is weighing a bid as a Democrat.
That, of course, raises the question of whether Arizona Democrats would be willing to embrace someone as their candidate who has played for the other team for years.
DuVal, his party’s standard-bearer in 2014, has no problem with that — and not just because Woods backed him that year over Ducey.
“He has always been sort of center-left but has been clearly stimulated by Trump to become more pronounced in his leanings,” DuVal said. “So he clearly is in sync with where much of the party is.”
And there’s something else, more pragmatic: “Democrats are hoping to win,” DuVal said.
Woods said he is counting on that desire. “People in politics, one mistake they often make is they don’t fully appreciate that in order to achieve the change you want, you have to win,” he said.
Democrats, who trail Republicans in Arizona voter registration, haven’t been able to do that, with all statewide offices and both U.S. Senate seats now held by the GOP.
But what about running as a Republican?
“I don’t think that’s a realistic possibility,” Woods said, even though he won two Republican primaries for attorney general.
“Things have changed,” he said. “I haven’t changed but the party has changed. If it wants to be the party of Trump, that’s not me.”
Nor does he believe that the more moderate elements of the party could reclaim it, at least not in the current political climate.
“Jeff Flake couldn’t run,” Woods noted of Arizona’s Republican junior senator, who was effectively forced out of running for reelection this year by challenges from the right.
In fact, Woods said, the only person who displayed the independence of McCain who could actually win among Arizona Republicans was John McCain.
Johnson said that’s why he backs Woods.
“I’d like to see somebody replace John McCain when the seat becomes permanent that is like John McCain,” he said.