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McCain’s Replacement Is No Maverick

The Republican governor of Arizona, Doug Ducey, announced on Tuesday that he will appoint former Sen. Jon Kyl to replace the late John McCain in the U.S. Senate. In Kyl, Republicans are getting a more reliable GOP vote than McCain was — his appointment should make life a little easier for President Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Ducey himself.

Kyl, who served in the Senate from 1995 to 2013, is a more conventional Republican than McCain was. He rarely bucked the party line on key issues when he was in Congress. In fact, he voted with the GOP on party-line votes1 at a higher rate than McCain in seven out of the nine sessions of Congress in which both of them were in the Senate.

Moreover, from 2008 to 2013, Kyl was the “whip” for Senate Republicans,2 meaning that his job was to make sure that GOP senators toed the party line. He has remained a party loyalist even after leaving Congress — for the past few weeks, Kyl has been the “sherpa” for Kavanaugh, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, accompanying him to meetings with senators.

So for McConnell and Trump, Kyl will be a predictable, dependable vote in a way that McCain was not always.

Meanwhile, Kyl also seems like a smart political pick for Ducey, who is up for re-election this November. Kyl is 76 years old, and I doubt that he is looking to serve a long tenure in the Senate, since he announced his retirement from the chamber ahead of the 2012 election even as it was likely he would have won a fourth term. So Ducey has, in effect, picked a caretaker for this seat — someone who will likely serve until 2020, when there will be a special election for the final two years of McCain’s term. A caretaker is useful because Arizona’s Republican Party is divided between a more traditional wing and a more insurgent wing. Ducey could have irritated one wing or the other if he had picked someone who was seeking to be a long-term replacement for McCain. Instead, in Kyl, Ducey has picked someone who is obviously well-qualified, is not likely to seek to hold the seat beyond 2020 and has not only traditional credentials (his tenure on Capitol Hill) but also insurgent ones (in aiding the Kavanaugh nomination, Kyl has shown loyalty to Trump). So Ducey has a good shot of ensuring the party is unified around him for his own campaign.

It wasn’t clear whether McCain’s widow, Cindy McCain, wanted to replace her husband on either a short-term or long-term basis. (Her name was repeatedly floated by the press.) But while picking her might have won Ducey plaudits from McCain fans in both parties, doing so would likely have irritated more conservative Republicans in Arizona and nationally who strongly disagreed with the late senator on issues like immigration. McCain’s funeral on Saturday was essentially an hours-long rebuke of Trump. I don’t think Ducey could appoint a McCain family member without some risk to his appeal to the GOP base.

Kyl, by contrast, is likely to align himself with the president on most policy issues. And so that doesn’t leave much room for hope for congressional Democrats; there was basically a 49-50 split in the Senate with McCain ill, so a single Republican could join Democrats and sink any McConnell-lead initiative. Now, Republicans not only have 51 votes, but their 51st vote is likely to almost never waver from the party line.


  1. Votes in which at least half of the Republican Party voted one way and half of the Democratic Party voted the other way.

  2. That’s the No. 2 post in the party hierarchy in the Senate.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.