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Jon Kyl Appointment Latest Twist in Tumultuous Arizona Politics

Grand Canyon State will have two freshman senators for the first time since 1912

Former Sen. Jon Kyl,  R-Ariz., will be joining Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., in the Senate. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Former Sen. Jon Kyl,  R-Ariz., will be joining Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., in the Senate. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Say this for Arizona: Its politics are rarely boring.

Add to it now former Sen. Jon Kyl’s appointment to the Senate, the latest chapter in a period of political uncertainty that’s nevertheless a new experience for most Arizonans — at least when it comes to the relative stability of its senators.

The Grand Canyon State has produced Senate icons such as Democrat Carl Hayden and Republicans Barry Goldwater and John McCain, whose service was measured in decades. By January, it could have two freshman senators far down on the seniority depth chart. 

Kyl, a Republican whom Gov. Doug Ducey picked Tuesday to replace McCain, does not intend to run in a special election in 2020 to fill out the rest of the late senator’s term, which ends in 2022. At this point, Kyl might not serve past December, casting more uncertainty into the race for McCain’s seat.

“It’s the first time since 1912 we’ll have two freshman senators,” Arizona GOP strategist Chuck Coughlin said. “That’s how extraordinary that is.”

Even more extraordinary? Only 11 men have been an Arizona senator since the state entered the union in 1912. When Kyl is sworn in, he will join Goldwater as having served in the role after leaving. Goldwater left in 1964 to pursue the presidency, then was elected again in 1968.

Watch: Senate GOP’s Tribute to John McCain

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A place holder?

Kyl, who retired in 2012, will now serve alongside the man who succeeded him: Republican Jeff Flake. Their side-by-side service will be short-lived: Flake himself is retiring at the end of this Congress.  

Ducey indicated Tuesday that he would like Kyl to serve until the 2020 special election. But Kyl has not committed to doing so, saying that he never intended to return to the Senate after he left in 2013.

Asked Tuesday what he would do if Kyl opts to strictly be a short-term senator, Ducey said he hoped Kyl would serve longer, adding,“I’ll fulfill my responsibilities when they become due.”

Another unknown is whether Ducey will even be governor next year. He’s facing re-election this fall, and his Senate pick was cast as a delicate balance of appeasing the different factions of the Republican Party whose support he’ll need to win in November. Those factions include supporters of President Donald Trump and Republicans aligned with McCain, who was sharply critical of the president.

Even if Ducey loses to Democrat David Garcia in November, though, whoever is governor is required by state law to pick a replacement senator from the same political party as the departing senator. 

Ducey insisted that his choice was not a political calculation. But some Republicans said Tuesday that Kyl, who has been working closely with Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, was a good pick for both factions. 

GOP donor Dan Eberhart, who lives in Arizona, wrote in an email that Kyl was a “safe choice” for Ducey.

Former state GOP chairman Robert Graham said Kyl was a “great appointment” because of his experience and reputation in the Senate. 

“There will be a handful of folks that will declare themselves being conservative and they’ll say that Jon Kyl is establishment,” Graham said. “But everyone who will [should] look at his history.”

A distinguished history

One testament to Kyl’s mainstream bona fides is his most recent role shepherding Kavanaugh through the Senate’s confirmation process. 

Kyl is quite literally a Chamber of Commerce Republican, having served as chairman of the Phoenix chapter before being elected to the House to the first of four terms in 1986. He won election to the Senate in 1994, where he served three terms, rising to the rank of minority whip before retiring in 2013. 

Along the way, Kyl was an unapologetic national security hawk, culminating in his spearheading of the ultimately unsuccessful opposition to the New START nonproliferation treaty between the United States and Russia. 

In the mid-2000s, he worked with Republicans and Democrats on efforts to overhaul the U.S. immigration system before those efforts broke down. During Republican presidential administrations, his name would occasionally surface on short lists of possible Supreme Court nominees.

One reason Kyl might be motivated to get back to the private sector? He’s undoubtedly making far more money than a senator’s salary. 

Kyl’s registered lobbying clients at the firm Covington & Burling this year have included Qualcomm Inc., JW Aluminum, mining company Freeport-McMoRan, the Coalition for American Retirement and the private equity investor Gordon Sondland, who is a co-founder of Aspen Capital, according to congressional lobbying disclosures.

Kyl also worked in support of the Supreme Court nomination of Neil Gorsuch for the client Judicial Crisis Network, which paid Covington $215,000 last year, according to lobbying disclosures. 

Beyond 2018

For the foreseeable future, it remains an open question as to who might run for the rest of McCain’s term in 2020. 

Coughlin said some names that had been floated as potential appointees to McCain’s seat, including state Treasurer Eileen Klein, could pop up again — especially if Ducey has to make another appointment to replace Kyl. Coughlin said Ducey would likely have to pick someone who would run for the rest of the term, given the timing on the 2020 race. 

Graham’s name was floated as a potential Senate contender in 2018, and he didn’t rule out a run on Tuesday. (He said it was not on his radar right now but remained a possibility.) 

First Arizonans have to pick a senator this year in the open-seat race to replace Flake. Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema faces GOP Rep. Martha McSally in a race Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates a Toss-up.

Should McSally lose, she could also be considered for a Senate appointment. But it might be too early to start speculating on post-2018 scenarios.

“It’s just too hypothetical right now,” Coughlin said.

The state’s Democrats also have decisions to make. If Sinema were to lose in November, for instance, she could be a candidate again. Other Democrats who could make a 2020 run include Rep. Ruben Gallego, a state Democratic strategist said.

Kate Ackley contributed to this report.

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