Jon Kyl named McCain’s replacement in Senate

Jon Kyl, who served in the Senate from 1995 to 2013, was chosen Tuesday by Gov. Doug Ducey to succeed the late Sen. John McCain. (Photo by Celisse Jones/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Former U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl will return to Congress for the remainder of the 2018 session, Gov. Doug Ducey announced at a news conference Tuesday. Kyl will fill the seat vacated by John McCain, who died last month after a long battle with brain cancer.

In Cindy McCain’s first tweet since her husband’s memorial service in the Washington National Cathedral, she called Kyl a dear friend and said his appointment was a fitting tribute to her husband’s legacy.

Kyl served alongside McCain representing Arizona in the Senate from 1995 to 2013. Kyl retired from Congress as the second-highest ranking Republican senator and went to work as a lobbyist for Covington & Burling, an international law firm.

“He is a man without comparable peer, with almost two decades of experience in the Senate serving alongside John McCain,” Ducey said. “He’s an expert on the matters facing Arizona: water, land use and issues facing our Native American communities. I want someone who can enter and lead on those conversations.”

Kyl most recently worked with the Trump administration to push forward the appointment of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, whose confirmation hearing began Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Kyl and Ducey referenced Kavanaugh’s nomination several times during the news conference. Kyl gave assurances his lobbying work won’t impede his ability to serve in the Senate.

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“It is my honor to be helping on the Kavanaugh nomination,” Kyl said. “I believe in Brett Kavanaugh and in that capacity, I’ve been able to support Kavanaugh with the administration.”

Ducey told reporters Kyl was ready to “hit the ground running” with Kavanaugh’s nomination process.

“Now Senator Kyl can cast a vote for Kavanaugh’s confirmation,” Ducey said.

Ducey had said this wasn’t a political appointment. Asked later about the role Kyl’s relationship with Kavanaugh played in the decision to appoint him, the governor pointed to Kyl’s experience instead.

“I think it is in picking the best possible person, the person who has the experience, that has done the job and can soothe the citizens in terms of what they can accomplish,” Ducey said. “Jon Kyl has a record. He has worked across the aisle and he has been lauded by both sides of the aisle.”

Kyl, 76, agreed only to finish out the current session of Congress, which ends Jan. 3. Ducey said he hopes Kyl will stay for the entire term, which ends in 2020.

“I haven’t been able to get that assurance from Senator Kyl yet,” Ducey said. “What I have gotten is a commitment to serve Arizona through at least this session of Congress. And it’s my hope that he serves longer.”

Sen. Jeff Flake, who also is leaving the Senate in January, praised the choice on Twitter, saying there was nobody more qualified than Kyl to fill the seat.

Flake’s reaction was typical of the state’s congressional Republicans, who praised the selection of an experienced senator and commended Kyl for his willingness to come out of retirement and get to back to work for the state.

While most political experts called it a smart move by Ducey, some also raised concerns about the uncertainty of how long Kyl will hold the office.

“I think it’s ridiculous to have a temporary senator for only three to four months,” said Bill Scheel, a political consultant with Javelina, a Phoenix marketing and advocacy firm. “If you’re not able or willing to commit to a full two years, you should have declined.”

Still others saw the short-term appointment as one intended to get Ducey past this fall’s elections by choosing an experienced senator with appeal among conservatives of all kinds.

Kyle Kondik, political analyst and managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said it “was probably wise of Ducey to make a non-controversial choice” before the election

“It’s a way to kick the can down the road and not have the Senate be a real factor in the upcoming election,” he said. “It keeps his options open for another appointment later next year because he picked someone who doesn’t want to be there long-term, and it probably insulates him from any real criticism in the short-term as he tries to win re-election.”

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Javelina CEO Catherine Alonzo called it “a very safe bet from Ducey.”

“This might just be a stopgap to get Ducey through the election,” Alonzo said.

Whatever the motive, Republican pollsters and politicians welcomed what Matthew Benson, a Republican political consultant and former senior aide to Gov. Jan Brewer, called the “pitch-perfect selection” of Kyl.

“He is loved and supported by the McCain family, and is that rare appointment who should have the backing of both the moderate and conservative wings of the GOP,” Benson said in an email. “At a time when our country desperately needs grown-ups in Washington, D.C., Jon Kyl fits the bill.”

Former Rep. Matt Salmon said Kyl will help fill a leadership gap for the state in Washington, and he hopes Kyl stays on long-term.

“We have a big hole and a lot less influence than we once had,” Salmon said, citing McCain’s death and Flake’s decision not to seek re-election. “Kyl’s appointment has helped to fill that hole.”

Jason Barraza, senior associate director of Phoenix lobbying and campaign consulting firm Veridus LLC, said it’s good that Kyl, “who has experience in the Senate is going back to represent Arizona when Arizona really needs experienced senators in Congress.” But the ambiguity about how long he will stay does raise some concerns.

“Whether it’s a year from now or a month from now, it leaves a lot of uncertainty,” Barraza said.

Experts say those who are hoping for Kyl to continue McCain’s reputation for independence – particularly his sparring with President Donald Trump – may be disappointed. Trump tweeted his pleasure at Kyl’s appointment Tuesday.

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“It’s somebody that Trump will like because Kyl in in charge of the appointment process for his nominee,” Alonzo said, referring to Kyl acting as Kavanaugh’s guide through the Senate nomination process. “He’s fairly aligned with Trump and, in that way, doesn’t represent McCain’s ‘maverick’ streak.”

Maverick or not, many say that there’s no one better suited for the role.

“I think he’s being a patriot, he’s stepping in, he’s a man that needs no training wheels, and will initially begin helping the state of Arizona like no one else in the state could,” said Jason Rose, a Republican political consultant. “I don’t think Jon Kyl’s doing this out of political consideration, I think he’s just doing this to help his good friend and serving the state that he loves.”

Nathan Gonzales, editor of the newsletter Inside Elections, called Kyl’s appointment “the least dramatic appointment the governor could have made.”

“Whether it’s for the governor himself, or for the Republican Party, and even the McCain family,” Gonzales said, “it appears to have been a ‘do no harm’ appointment.”
McCain died Aug. 25 after a yearlong battle with brain cancer. Under Arizona law, if a vacancy occurs in one of the state’s two Senate seats, the governor is required to name a replacement from the same party.

This is the first time in Arizona’s history that a Senate seat has been filled by the governor, according to a list on the Senate’s web page.

-Cronkite News reporters Vandana Ravikumar and Brendan Campbell contributed to this article in Washington.