Kyl, a Republican who retired from the Senate in 2012 to spend more time with his family, is currently shepherding Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. Kyl’s appointment will make it possible for him to vote for the nomination.
But it’s unclear what more Kyl, 76, will do in Washington. He said he agreed to serve briefly out of a “sense of duty” and will not run for the seat in 2020, when Arizona voters will decide who fills the seat through 2022. The seat will then be up again for a full six-year term.
Gov. Doug Ducey, also a Republican, said Kyl was “the best possible person, regardless of politics” for the job, and he hopes Kyl serves past the end of the year.
If Kyl does leave the Senate after the end of the current congressional term next Jan. 3, Arizona’s governor can appoint another senator for the remaining year. By state law the senator will have to be a member of the same party as the departing one, in this case the GOP.
For now, Kyl will pad Republicans’ margin in the narrowly divided Senate. They hold a 51-49 majority but that dwindled to a single vote while McCain stayed in Arizona for much of this year being treated for the brain cancer that killed him on Aug. 25.
The GOP is hoping Kyl will be a more reliable partisan vote than McCain, whose opposition to a partial repeal of President Obama’s health care law pitched the party into turmoil last year.
Kyl is well-respected in Arizona and has been able to avoid many of the battles with activists that complicated McCain’s career and that of the state’s other senator, Jeff Flake, who is retiring because his feud with Trump made his re-election impossible.
Kyl’s entire career in Washington overlapped with McCain’s, and he served with the state’s senior senator for three terms before stepping down. Kyl carved out a profile as a reliable conservative vote and a foreign policy expert.
McCain’s widow, Cindy, tweeted: “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.”
Doug Cole, a veteran Republican consultant and former McCain aide, said Kyl was a good, safe pick.
“I think McCain would be very happy with the pick. Honors his legacy while putting some major horsepower for Arizona in the seat, at least for now,” he said.
An attorney, Kyl speaks in a formal, reserved manner that is a sharp contrast to President Trump, and he belongs to an older, less populist vanguard of the GOP. At a news conference where he was introduced as McCain’s replacement, Kyl said in a response to a question that he’s only met Trump once, though he noted he is working for the White House by serving as Kavanaugh’s so-called “sherpa.”
With a nod toward McCain, Kyl said the president’s “desire to jump into the middle of or be in the middle of a fight — and by the way that reminds me of somebody — can be detrimental in the end to what he’s trying to achieve.”
The unusual timing of Kyl’s appointment could work out for another Arizona Republican who wants to become a U.S. senator — Rep. Martha McSally.
She’s currently locked in a tough campaign against Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema for the Senate seat Flake is vacating. Should she lose, McSally — a former Air Force colonel who once worked on Kyl’s staff — could be appointed to the McCain seat if Kyl vacates it in January.
Filling McCain’s seat marks a turning point in Arizona political history. The seat has been held by two men who were heralded as giants of the Senate: McCain took the seat once held by Sen. Barry Goldwater after McCain had served in the House of Representatives.
The choice of Kyl will also have political consequences for Ducey. He’s up for re-election this November against Democratic challenger David Garcia.
For Republican voters who are on the fence about Ducey, a choice they dislike could cause them to withdraw their support for the incumbent or stay home on Election Day.
AP reporter Nicholas Riccardi contributed to this report.