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Arizona delegation brings new faces, less seniority to next Congress

When the 116th Congress convenes in January, something notable will be missing in the Arizona delegation: As much as 73 years of collective experience on Capitol Hill.

With the loss of some of its most senior members from the incoming Congress, the average tenure of a member of Arizona’s delegation has gone from just under nine years at the start of the 115th Congress two years ago, to just over five years heading into the 116th.

While losing years of seniority might not be ideal, it does not necessarily doom the delegation’s ability to get things done, according to an American University political science professor.

“Unless you’re in leadership, in terms of party leadership or committee leadership … being a freshman member, a sophomore member, a junior member is really not that different,” said Meredith Persily Lamel.

The death of Sen. John McCain will leave Arizona with a legislative void, because the high-profile lawmaker ran the powerful Armed Services Committee.

“You not only have a chairman of an important committee, but somebody who has a lot of respect from his colleagues,” said Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “When he spoke people listened and that meant Arizona’s interests were protected.”

McCain spent nearly 36 years on Capitol Hill, serving in the House from 1982 to 1986, when he was elected to the first of six terms in the Senate.

Fellow Republican Sen. Jeff Flake announced in October 2017 that he would not run for re-election after his one term in the Senate. When he leaves Washington this month, he will be taking a total of 18 years of House and Senate experience with him.

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With the Democrats taking over the House of Representatives, Rep. Raul Grijalva will take over the chairmanship of the House Natural Resources Committee, so the state will retain a degree of clout on Capitol Hill.

Flake will be replaced by Sen.-elect Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat with six years of House history. But she will be replaced by former Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, a true freshman on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Trent Franks, R-Peoria, who spent nearly 16 years in the House, resigned in December 2017 in the face of House Ethics Committee investigation into charges of sexual harassment. Franks was replaced in April by Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, who will return in the next Congress with less than a year under her belt.

The picture is complicated by McCain’s replacement, Sen. Jon Kyl, who is retiring at the end of the month. He had 26 years of prior Congressional experience when he was named to McCain’s seat.

Gov. Doug Ducey on Tuesday said he would appoint outgoing Rep. Martha McSally, R-Tucson, to take over for Kyl as the new Congress convenes. McSally lost her bid for Flake’s seat to Sinema this year and while she has four years of experience in the House, it’s not the decades of experience Kyl brought to the job. And it means Arizona will have two freshman senators next year.

But Democratic political consultant Bill Scheel said fresh faces may not necessarily be a bad thing for the state.

“I think in many respects we’re going to have a delegation that’s more focused on Arizona issues and less focused on national posturing,” Scheel said.

In one case, the incoming member will have more experience than the outgoing one. McSally is being replaced after two terms in the House by Rep.-elect Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democrat who comes to the job with a total of six years in the House divided between two previous stretches.

In addition to her experience, Kirkpatrick brings something to Washington that Lamel says is just as important: An electoral victory in a swing district.

Lamel said a House member from a competitive district can draw “attention” from party leaders, who want to hold that seat. They may try to strengthen such lawmakers’ hand by putting them on powerful committees that will help members raise funds when it comes time for them to run for re-election.

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“Each political party … they have what are called their frontline members and so those are going to be freshman members in swing districts,” Lamel said. “In many ways being a freshman member, you get a little bit more attention from party leadership because … they want you to be able to preserve your seat.”

Purdue political science professor Valeria Sinclair-Chapman said senators usually stand out as leaders and that with McCain gone and his long-term replacement uncertain, that could mean increased prominence for Sinema.

“I think that Sinema is going to be very welcome,” Sinclair-Chapman said. “I think the Democratic Party will even want to showcase her more … part of that depends on who gets to show up on the Sunday morning shows.”

Scheel does not expect that person to be Sinema, noting that more-liberal congressional Democrats and those running for president in 2020 are likely to make the majority of headlines in the 116th Congress.

The new members may not always be in the media spotlight, Scheel said, but they should be able to deliver more for Arizonans. While McCain had become an important figure in foreign policy and both he and Flake where high-profile Republican critics of President Donald Trump, Scheel said they had become disconnected from the state they represented.

“There will be fewer Arizona senators quoted in the New York Times and the Washington Post, but I don’t think that’s necessarily detrimental to Arizona,” he said.

– Cronkite News reporter Ian Solomon contributed to this report.

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Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Arizona, appointed to replace the late Sen. John McCain, announced he will step down on Dec. 31, one of a number of experienced lawmakers from the state who will not be in the next Congress being sworn in Jan. 3.