PHOENIX — When John McCain first ran for Congress in Arizona in 1982, he was accused of being a carpetbagger who was using the state to advance his own ambitions.
On Wednesday, political elites of all stripes and average citizens alike bade him farewell as if he were a native son — one with no clear successor on the horizon to carry on his work.
“Like many of us here in Arizona, John McCain was from somewhere else,” Republican Governor Doug Ducey said at a memorial service as the two-time presidential candidate’s body lay in state in the Capitol. “But his spirit, service, and fierce independence ultimately helped shape the state with which he became synonymous.”
Even in death, McCain’s legacy found some measure of triumph over his nemesis, President Donald Trump, who made political sport of attacking him, especially after he cast the deciding vote to prevent the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
On Tuesday night in the Republican primary to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake — who felt his own full-throated attacks on Trump would cost him at the polls — a McCain protégé trounced two Trump supporters.
Rep. Martha McSally, who struggled to gain the support of Trump voters while not fully distancing herself from McCain, bested both former state Sen. Kelli Ward and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whom Trump pardoned earlier this year after he was convicted of criminal contempt.
Together, they couldn’t garner 50 percent of the vote.
Ducey, who will appoint a temporary successor to fill McCain’s Senate seat, is also under pressure to choose someone who embodies some of McCain’s — and Arizona’s — maverick spirit over rigid party allegiance or ideology in order to bolster his own political fortunes.
“John was probably the only politician who could get us to set aside politics and come together as a state and a nation, as we have,” Ducey said in his remarks on Wednesday.
But this is not the Arizona that sent Barry Goldwater to Washington 65 years ago or John McCain to Congress 36 years ago. It’s a state where independents make up a third of registered voters, and that is filled with contradictory political impulses.
Trump carried Arizona in 2016 and remains popular, yet the Senate race to replace Flake is expected to be close, with McSally facing Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema. McCain’s old seat in the House of Representatives is occupied by a Democrat.
McCain, a lifelong conservative and military hawk, navigated Arizona’s quirky style of independent politics effectively for three decades, but he took his lumps along the way — and now there is no real torchbearer in the House or among the Senate candidates to carry forward his legacy.
“Arizona has that independent streak,” said Dr. Steve Ferrara, a retired Navy captain who won the GOP primary on Tuesday in the congressional district that McSally is vacating. “It is still kind of like the West. He was truly a maverick. He represented the state and its ideology.”
Yet Ferrara, a conservative Republican in the McCain mold, is facing a tough battle against former Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton to keep the McSally seat in GOP hands. And a number of other House races are up for grabs.
McCain was somehow able to withstand challenges from both left and the right throughout his career, winning a sixth term to the Senate overwhelmingly in 2016.
And on Wednesday, thousands of Arizonans from all walks of life lined up outside the Capitol in the sweltering August heat hours before members of the public weres permitted to file past his casket.
“I came him to thank him and say goodbye,” said Mary Kay Nelson, 65, an artist who was one of the first to stand in line after daybreak and who said she exchanged letters with McCain over the years about her experience working with Mexican immigrants seeking work permits — “so they didn’t have to get shot sneaking over the border.”
“He tried to address my concerns about immigration,” the lifelong Republican recalled.
The public outpouring began as soon as the news broke of McCain’s death on Saturday from brain cancer.
The flags and flowers, candles and cards also continued to pile up outside his central Phoenix office — both to honor him and to express hope that his ability to build political coalitions will carry on.
“Our Desert Rose,” began one anonymous note left in his memory. “Saving lives — in war, in peace, and by voting to keep the ACA. Rest in Power.”
“Arizona’s maverick, American hero, Our champion,” read another makeshift poster displayed outside his local entrance.
Phoenix’s Vietnamese-American community, which had a special relationship with McCain due his service in Vietnam and crucial role in restoring diplomatic relations in the 1990s, held a special vigil in his honor.
Even those who didn’t necessarily support McCain politically felt compelled to honor his memory.
“Often disagreed, but always respected you,” wrote the author of another anonymous note. “Thank you for serving and leaving our nation better than you found it. Honor and duty transcend political alliances. May we live up to the example you leave us with.”
Even Arpaio grudgingly acknowledged that McCain’s legacy was uniquely impactful. Their biggest divide of late, of course, was over Trump, who is barred at McCain’s personal wish from participating in the weeklong events to honor him in Arizona and Washington before his scheduled burial this weekend at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.
“I’m a big Donald Trump guy from Day One, and I support our president,” Arpaio said. “But [McCain] worked hard for this state and his country. We have to respect the senator and what he’s accomplished.”
Others who came to honor McCain are staking their own political fortunes on his legacy — even some from the opposing political party.
Rep. Tom O’Halleran, a Republican-turned-independent-turned Democrat who now holds the House seat McCain occupied for two terms, said he worked most closely with McCain on water and land management issues affecting his largely rural district.
He credited the enduring loyalty to McCain here to how he came to embody the independent streak that has long been a hallmark of the state.
“In general, the people of Arizona appreciate that thought consideration on an issue instead of the idea that you have to go down the party line,” O’Halleran said in an interview on his way to the Capitol to pay his respects to McCain. “He was never a divisive figure.”
McCain, too, often spoke of how he came to love Arizona and was privileged to call it home.
“In reality we were the ones who were privileged,” Ducey said at the memorial service at the Capitol, as he personally thanked Cindy McCain for bringing her husband here. “Privileged to have John McCain fighting for us, privileged to learn from him, privileged to call him a fellow Arizonan.”
Ducey said in his travels he finds that people often know “two big things” about Arizona: “John McCain and the Grand Canyon. Imagining Arizona without John McCain is like picturing an Arizona without the Grand Canyon. It’s just not natural.”
After a religious service planned for Thursday in Phoenix, McCain, whom Ducey called Arizona’s “favorite adopted son,” will be gone forever.
But, regardless of the fortunes of one political party or another, his political style is likely to be felt for years to come, said Barrett Marson, a former staffer in the Arizona House of Representatives who now advises political campaigns.
“You can’t spit near the Capitol and not hit someone who worked for McCain — as a staffer, campaign worker, or intern,” he remarked.