There’s some scrambling going on in the Arizona state legislature this month and it all has to do with upcoming Senate elections. The GOP is bracing for a bruising fight to hold onto the seat of retiring Senator Jeff Flake, but now the party leadership is growing concerned that Senator John McCain’s health issues could result in both of their seats being up for grabs at the same time. Despite the fact that this situation crops up for other states from time to time, the Republicans are attempting to ensure that the Governor can keep the seat in GOP hands for at least the next two years. (The Guardian)

Arizona lawmakers are debating legislation that would keep John McCain’s Senate successor off the ballot in November’s midterm elections, should the seat become open before the end of next month.

The bill, which could come up for a vote this week, would change the state’s process for replacing members of Congress who resign or die in office. Though Democrats are expected block the measure, the effort has renewed speculation about McCain’s health.

McCain, a six-term Arizona senator and 2008 Republican presidential nominee, was diagnosed last summer with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. The 81-year-old has been with his family, absent from Washington, since December.

This may look like an insignificant change to the rules, but it’s going to be seen as a baldly partisan effort to rig the system. Every state sets their own rules for replacing a senator mid-term, and Arizona’s current law is similar to that of many others. As things stand now, if a Senate seat comes open more than 90 days before the regularly scheduled primary in a general election year, the Governor can appoint a replacement temporarily, but they would stand for election in November. If the seat becomes open later than that, the Governor’s appointee would serve for two years and need to run in the 2020 general election.

Currently, that means that if a seat became vacant before May 31 (and they’re obviously talking about John McCain’s seat here) both seats would be up for election in November. The state GOP wants to expand that window to be 150 days before the primary. In that event, if John McCain was no longer serving, the Governor’s appointee would be good until 2020 since the new, earlier deadline would have already passed.

What they’re trying to do is obviously legal since the states are free to set their own rules, at least within constitutional limits. But should they? First of all, it looks far too much like a vote of no confidence in McCain, who is about as tough as they come and will hopefully still surprise everyone with a full recovery. The legislators pushing for this change are acting like vultures circling around and waiting for him to die. But even beyond those optics, any time you tweak the rules to give yourself an advantage, you set up the opposition to take advantage of the changes next time they are in power. This sort of maneuver always comes back to bite you in the end.

There really isn’t a good argument against having both Senate seats on the ballot in the same year. It happens often enough around the country and democracy doesn’t seem to collapse as a result. In New York, for example, Kirsten Gillibrand was appointed to the Senate in 2009 after Hillary Clinton was picked for Secretary of State. She then had to run again in 2010, the same year that Chuck Schumer was up for reelection, to be able to finish the rest of Clinton’s current term. Nobody disputed that process, obviously, since the Democrats already controlled the entire state and the seat wasn’t in danger for them.

There’s no assurance that the Arizona GOP will be able to pull this off since they will need a small amount of Democratic support to pass the measure. But even if they fail, people will remember this ploy and it doesn’t paint them in a very pretty light. Perhaps it would be better to leave well enough alone and simply pray for Senator McCain’s full and speedy recovery.