The Slatest

The GOP Crafted an Ingenious Way to Fill John McCain’s Seat

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, Vice President Mike Pence and former Sen. Jon Kyl greet one another before a July 2018 meeting.
Former Sen. Jon Kyl, right, was tapped by the GOP to help Brett Kavanaugh through his confirmation process. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has tapped former Republican Sen. Jon Kyl to fill the late John McCain’s vacant seat—for the next few months, at least. That unexpected twist comes by way of the Arizona Republic, which broke the news on Tuesday afternoon:

Kyl has agreed to serve at least through the end of the year, a representative for Ducey said. If he opts to step down after the end of the session, the Republican governor would be required to appoint another replacement, the aide said. …

Ducey will submit a certificate of appointment to the U.S. Senate secretary Tuesday. An aide is flying the paperwork to Washington, D.C., and will hand-deliver it to the secretary’s office. Kyl could be sworn in as early as Tuesday night, though Wednesday is more likely, the aide said.

This is not how most political observers expected this to go. Following McCain’s death, the conventional wisdom was that Ducey had two choices: He could appoint someone like Kyl or Cindy McCain as a placeholder to serve until a 2020 special election, or Ducey could pick a political up-and-comer who could then use the next two years to build up his or her name ID and campaign bank account ahead of what is sure to be a competitive contest. Instead, Ducey seems to have found a way to do both.

By appointing the 76-year-old Kyl, a known quantity from his nearly two decades in the Senate and someone who is currently shepherding Brett Kavanaugh through his confirmation process, Ducey has given Mitch McConnell a reliable yes vote (more reliable than McCain’s) at a time when Republicans hold a narrow one-seat edge in the upper chamber. And then if and when Republicans finish jamming Kavanaugh’s confirmation through the Senate, Kyl can return to his high-paying gig at Covington & Burling, the D.C. law firm he joined in 2013 after leaving the Senate the last time, and Ducey can replace him with whomever the GOP establishment thinks has the best chance of holding the seat in 2020—possibly U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, if she’s defeated this November in her bid for Arizona’s other Senate seat.

It’s a creative strategy and one that comes with remarkably little risk for Republicans. Ducey is up for re-election this year, yes, but even if he loses to Democratic nominee David Garcia, McCain’s seat wouldn’t be in danger of falling into Democratic hands anytime soon. Arizona law stipulates that the governor can only appoint an interim senator who is from the same party as the departed one he or she is replacing. And if the GOP believes Garcia and Democrats could appoint a moderate Republican willing to break partisan ranks, they can simply persuade Kyl to soldier on for one more year than he’d otherwise prefer.