Jon Kyl, a retired three-term U.S. senator, was chosen Tuesday to fill the vacant seat of the late John McCain, delivering Republicans a reliably conservative vote and less irascible workmate to bolster their thin majority on Capitol Hill.
But Kyl, 76, complicated matters for Republican Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who made the choice, by committing to serve only through the current session of Congress ending in January. Ducey or his successor may then have to pick yet another interim senator to replace Kyl and serve until a candidate chosen in the next general election, in November 2020, is seated.
“There is no one in Arizona with the stature of Sen. Jon Kyl,” Ducey said in a sober appearance announcing his selection at the state Capitol in Phoenix. “He is a man without comparable peer. With nearly two decades experience in the Senate, serving alongside John McCain, Sen. Kyl is prepared to hit the ground running.”
His swearing-in was expected as soon as Wednesday.
Kyl, who has worked as a Washington lobbyist since leaving office in 2013, was already helping the White House shepherd the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh through the Senate. Now, Ducey noted, he will be able to cast a vote in Kavanaugh’s favor, as McCain had been expected to do.
The appointment was praised by the late senator’s widow, Cindy, and the couple’s daughter, Meghan, each of whom was touted as a possible successor — though both were scorned by the far right wing of the Arizona GOP, which feuded with McCain for years.
Meghan McCain weighed in with her own Twitter commendation. “I can think of no one better to keep fighting for the country and state he held so dear,” she wrote. “He has always been a true statesman and a friend to my family.”
The death of McCain last month at age 81 presented Ducey with both an opportunity and a dilemma.
Under state law, he was obliged to appoint a Republican. But the Arizona GOP is one of the most deeply divided in the country, torn between pragmatists who supported McCain and the state’s other GOP senator, Jeff Flake, and hard-line conservative activists who loathed both men, especially for their criticisms of President Trump.
Caught in the middle was Ducey, who is up for reelection in November against Democrat David Garcia. Although he is favored to win the contest, Ducey could ill afford to antagonize his Republican base or the state’s sizable number of independent voters, who are turned off by extremes in both parties.
Kyl was seen as his safest choice. Before stepping down in January 2013, he was well regarded within the GOP and respected by Democrats on Capitol Hill, where he served in a number of leadership positions in a distinctly low-key manner.
“Very reliable. Very safe,” Chuck Coughlin, a longtime Republican strategist who was close to McCain, said of Kyl’s selection. “He’s a workhorse. He doesn’t pick unnecessary fights.”
Moreover, Coughlin noted, “he got the blessing of the McCain family right out of the gate.”
The announcement bolsters the GOP ranks on Capitol Hill, where the Republicans’ 51-49 majority dwindled to a single vote during McCain's prolonged retreat to Arizona for medical care.
Kyl is expected to be a far more reliable partisan vote than his predecessor, who occasionally broke with his party, including, most notably, casting a decisive vote last summer against GOP efforts to kill Obamacare.
Still, Kyl has been critical of the president, if not his policies. In a February interview with radio station KJZZ in Phoenix, Kyl called Trump “boorish,” “a phenomenon that has to be dealt with” and sometimes his “own worst enemy.”
Asked about those comments Tuesday, Kyl did not back away. “Sometimes his desire to jump in the middle of a fight, or create a fight, sometimes can be detrimental to what he’s trying to achieve,” he said of the president. “That is what I said and I stand by that comment.”
Kyl appeared grave as he spoke and made clear he was not returning to Capitol Hill with great eagerness. “I’m putting my country first,” he said, “just as this seat’s previous occupant did every single day for more than 30 years.”
Kyl ruled out running in 2020 — even if he stays in the Senate beyond next January — making way for a lively and competitive contest to fill the seat for the remainder of McCain’s term, which ends in January 2023.
Arizona is currently witnessing one of the hardest-fought Senate races in the country, pitting Republican Rep. Martha McSally of Tucson against Phoenix’s Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema. The two are vying for the open seat of Flake, who succeeded Kyl and opted to step aside rather than risk losing the Republican primary.
On Tuesday, Flake praised the selection of Kyl as “an excellent choice.”
Ducey’s announcement came two days after McCain was laid to rest at the U.S. Naval Academy cemetery following nearly a week of commemorations, including services that drew thousands of mourners in Arizona and Washington.