Why Jon Kyl was chosen to replace John McCain

Amid a reshuffling of Arizona’s political deck, the state’s governor makes a water-driven decision.


On Aug. 25, Republican Sen. John McCain died of brain cancer after representing Arizona in Congress for more than three decades. Responsibility for appointing McCain’s replacement fell to Arizona’s Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, who faced a difficult choice: Should he appoint an establishment Republican in the mold of McCain, or a far-right flamethrower like President Donald Trump? Last Tuesday, Ducey made his move, installing former Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, R, who retired in 2013, in McCain’s seat.

Ducey’s decision is a stabilizing and pragmatic one, and in an especially turbulent political moment, it seems to transcend pure political expediency. Kyl, who has a history of negotiating important and contentious water deals, returns to the Senate at a critical juncture for Arizona’s future water security, as it struggles to finalize its portion of the so-called “drought contingency plan” for the lower Colorado River.

In this 2012 photo, Arizona Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl walk out of the Senate chamber together.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP Images

The two other states in the Lower Colorado River Basin — Nevada and California — have already hammered out how they'll contribute to the plan, a voluntary water conservation agreement aimed at boosting water levels in Lake Mead. The states hope that by taking less water from Lake Mead now, they can prevent more severe shortages that will be imposed if the shrinking reservoir drops below certain levels. Arizona’s failure to adopt a plan — the result of a self-defeating battle between two water agencies over how much the state should voluntarily conserve — is holding up this critical planning process. And ironically, Arizona has the most to lose from failing to stave off shortages. Because it holds the most junior water rights to the Colorado River, the amount of water it siphons from the river to keep Phoenix, Tucson and hundreds of farms wet would be cut the most during a shortage, which could be declared as soon as 2020.

Kyl’s expertise could be crucial in the final negotiations over the three-state plan, and impacted Ducey’s decision to send him back to the Senate. Kyl, a former water attorney, ushered landmark water-rights settlements through Congress during his previous tenure, resolving decades-long legal disputes between the federal government and Arizona tribes. “His expertise on water and natural resource issues will be very beneficial to our state as we face new challenges in those areas,” Ducey said in his August announcement. “Now is not the time for on-the-job training.”

In Arizona, water has historically been an area of bi-partisan collaboration, but that has shifted in recent years, according to Chuck Coughlin, a longtime Arizona GOP consultant who worked on McCain’s first Senate campaign in 1986. The current drought planning has mostly been stymied by disputes between agencies within Arizona, but Republicans are also caught between conflicts among their constituents — namely, agricultural interests and developers — as water becomes more of a political concern among voters.

And growing partisanship on both the far-left and far-right has made consensus on water issues more difficult to reach. “There’s distrust from both parties that collide over water in Arizona,” Coughlin said. “The right distrusts any deal involving the federal government, and the left holds a lot of distrust about the state being able to confront scarcity over climate change. Kyl certainly has demonstrated the ability to bridge those sentiments in the past.”

Kyl will not play a major role in the drought plan’s details. But the agreement will have to pass the state Legislature, and because it’s part of a multi-state effort, it will require federal legislation to become legally binding. Kyl — if he continues to hold the Senate seat — would be expected to exert pressure on state lawmakers and Congress to finalize a deal. And Ducey hopes that Kyl will play “an active role” at the federal level in more broadly representing Arizona’s interests in the West’s ever-shrinking water supply. Of course, Kyl has only committed to serve through the current session, and it’s possible the drought plan won’t make it to Congress by then.

Ducey’s decision to bring Kyl back also included more partisan calculations. Kyl was sworn in the same day confirmation hearings began for conservative judge Brett Kavanaugh, a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court. As a lobbyist at Covington & Burling, Kyl has helped shepherd Kavanaugh through the confirmation process, and is sure to vote to put him on the high court, cementing a conservative majority for perhaps decades to come.

Kyl’s selection also illuminates the delicate politics of a changing electorate. As a whole, historically deep-red Arizona is becoming more moderate, and Democrats have a realistic shot this fall of flipping retiring Republican Sen. Jeff Flake’s seat. Yet the Republican base in Arizona remains as conservative as ever. In the GOP primary for Flake’s seat, the anti-immigrant former sheriff, Joe Arpaio — who forced prisoners to wear pink underwear and march in chain gangs — got 20 percent of the vote. Kelli Ward, who campaigned with far-right conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich and hinted that McCain timed his death to hurt her Senate bid, got 28 percent. Martha McSally, who entered the campaign as a measured McCain-style Republican, then tacked right, won with 53 percent.

In choosing ultra-conservative Kyl, Ducey, who is also up for election this November, won't anger his base and is also unlikely to alienate moderate voters because of Kyl’s reputation for getting things done. The GOP establishment hopes that Kyl’s presence in the Senate, even if it’s brief, will bridge some of the partisanship with his “get real” presence. “(Kyl’s) governing capabilities shouldn’t be overlooked,” said Paul Carrese, a political research and director of Arizona State University’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership. The Senate is far more partisan than it was even six years ago. “But Kyl has demonstrated that he knows the place and has experience.”

Paige Blankenbuehler is an assistant editor for NewTowncarShare News. [email protected]  

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