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Former senator Jon Kyl named as McCain's replacement

Former U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl has been appointed to fill the seat of the late Sen. John McCain, and will take office this week — but perhaps only for a short time.

Kyl was announced as the replacement for McCain by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Tuesday morning, the first business day after McCain was laid to rest Sunday.

The appointment means Kyl, who has been acting as a "sherpa" for the U.S. Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, will be able to cast a vote to add him to the bench of the highest court.

Kyl, 76, served in the Senate from 1995 through his retirement after the 2012 election, becoming the second-highest ranking Republican senator, the minority whip.

He will serve "at least" through the end of the year, Ducey's office said, leaving open the possibility that the governor will make another appointment to the seat next year.

"There is no one in Arizona more prepared to represent our state in the U.S. Senate than Jon Kyl," Ducey said.

"He understands how the Senate functions, and will make an immediate and positive impact benefiting all Arizonans. I am deeply grateful to Senator Kyl for agreeing to succeed his friend and colleague of so many years. Every single day that Jon Kyl represents Arizona in the United States Senate is a day when our state is being well-served," the Republican governor said.

"We are all saddened by the circumstances that required this appointment and appreciate there was only one John McCain," said Kyl. "John and I served the people of Arizona for nearly two decades, and in that spirit, along with Senator Flake, I will do my best to ensure Arizonans are well represented in the Senate. There is much-unfinished business, including confirmation of President Trump’s nominees for judicial and executive branch positions, and I look forward to getting to work on behalf of my fellow Arizonans."

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The move was welcomed by Cindy McCain, the senator's widow.

"Jon Kyl is a dear friend of mine and John’s. It’s a great tribute to John that he is prepared to go back into public service to help the state of Arizona," she tweeted just before Ducey publicly announced his choice.

Democratic candidate for governor David Garcia said he would've instead appointed "someone in the mold of Sen. John McCain such as Cindy McCain or (former McCain staffer and ex-state attorney general) Grant Woods who have a history of independence and bipartisanship."

Noting the appointee's role in Kavanaugh's Supreme Court appointment, Garcia said Kyl "will undoubtedly vote for his confirmation which puts many rights we take for granted at risk, chief among them are women's reproductive rights, civil rights, voting rights, environmental rights and workers rights."

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

“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.”

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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.”

Kyl's short-term commitment provides political options for the Republicans. If Rep. Martha McSally loses to Rep. Krysten Sinema in her November bid to move up to the Senate chamber, Ducey could appoint McSally to McCain's seat. In fact, if Ducey loses his reelection bid to Democratic candidate David Garcia, he could appoint himself to the Senate seat in the period between the election and leaving the governor's office.

Kyl's appointment will be effective nearly immediately, with Ducey's office sending the letter of appointment by messenger to the Secretary of the Senate's Office.

Under Arizona law, Ducey was required to appoint a replacement for McCain, who died Aug. 25. The new senator was required to be a member of the same party — a Republican. Because the seat became vacant after the end of March, the appointment is good through the 2020 election cycle. That year, a new senator will be elected to serve through the balance of McCain's term. He was elected in 2016 to serve through 2022.

If Kyl steps down after the end of this congressional session, in December or January, Ducey would be required to appoint a second replacement.

Ducey's office noted the potentially temporary nature of the appointment in the second sentence of the governor's announcement: "As Arizona's senator, Kyl will serve through at least the second session of the 115th Congress, concluding this year."

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.”

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.

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.

“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.”

Kyl served four terms in the House, from 1986-1994, before being elected to the first of three terms in the Senate.

Kyl was elected to the Senate in 1994, beating Sam Coppersmith, when Democrat Dennis DeConcini didn't run for a fourth term. He didn't face a Democrat in the 2000 election, and defeated Jim Pedersen, then the state Democratic Party chairman, by 10 points in his last election.

During his 18 years in that body, he rose to become the No. 2 Republican and served on the Judiciary Committee, which considered the nominations of four current Supreme Court justices while he was there, including Chief Justice John Roberts.

In addition to Roberts, who was approved by the full Senate on a 95-3 vote, Kyl voted on the nominations of justices Samuel Alito, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, whose nominations were decided along more partisan lines.

Kyl voted for Roberts and Alito, who were nominated by President George W. Bush, and against President Barack Obama’s nominees, Kagan and Sotomayor.

He left the Senate in 2013, and was succeeded by Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona.

In addition to working at Washington law firm Covington and Burling since then, Kyl has held a number of positions at Arizona State University, including a distinguished fellow in public service in ASU’s College of Public Programs and an O’Connor Distinguished Scholar of Law and Public Service in the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.

Cronkite News reporter Chris McCrory contributed to this report.


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Celisse Jones/Cronkite News

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.