Makes sense, especially when you remember that McConnell worries about primary challenges first and foremost. Arizona righties have been dogged in trying to oust establishment dinosaurs. Granted, they failed against McCain with J.D. Hayworth in 2010 and Kelli Ward in 2016, but Jeff Flake was weak enough in hypothetical match-ups against Ward that he didn’t bother to run for reelection this time. This year’s primary drew not one but two well-known populist challengers in Ward and Joe Arpaio, in fact. McConnell’s eyeing 2020 and the looming special election for McCain’s (now Jon Kyl’s) seat and worrying about another populist brushfire starting. If he doesn’t start playing chess now, Republicans might end up with a Roy Moore scenario in a purplish state in two years with control of the Senate on the line.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is leveraging his political power to try to convince Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey to choose Rep. Martha McSally to replace Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, who is considering leaving his seat before his term ends, several Republican sources familiar with the conversations tell CNN.
CNN has since learned that McConnell and other national Republican powerhouses are asking Ducey to name McSally as Kyl’s replacement, according to several Republican sources familiar with the conversations. If chosen, McSally would fill the position through the end of 2020, at which point the state would hold a special election to fill the remaining two years of McCain’s term. The seat would then be on the ballot in 2022 to be filled for the following six years.
While speaking about McSally last week, Kyl told CNN that “Martha McSally would be a very good member of the United States Senate, however she got there,” adding, “I regret that she didn’t make it in her election.”
If Kyl does step down before 2020 and Ducey names McSally to replace him, she’ll be looking at having to run three times in four years to earn a full term in the Senate. One is the failed run against Kyrsten Sinema this year, two is the 2020 special election to serve the final two years of McCain’s term, and three is the 2022 race for a full term. Gadzooks.
Is the seat even worth that much to her? It’d be one thing if either the primaries or the general election were walkovers for a Republican establishment favorite in Arizona but McSally had tough races in both this past year and might face tough ones in all four to come given the state of politics there And in 2020 she’d have Trump at the top of the ballot to deal with. Second look at the private sector?
McConnell’s strategy here is obvious. How many Arizona Republicans already have statewide name recognition that can be leveraged to their advantage in a future Senate run? There’s Cindy McCain, Ducey himself (who was just reelected as governor), and … Martha McSally, who finished less than two points behind a strong candidate in Sinema amid a national climate favorable to Democrats. Not bad. Appoint McSally to Kyl’s seat now and she’d roll into 2020 as an incumbent with all the associated advantages, starting with even greater name recognition. She might even be primary-proof by that point: Although Ward and Arpaio gave her a scare this summer, McSally ended up winning a clear majority of votes in their three-way race. How much stronger would she be as a sitting senator? McConnell’s betting that if one million Arizonans were willing to vote for her before, they’ll be willing again. Particularly if the competition is weaker than Sinema, which is likely. Stick with the known quantity. That’s the establishment way!
One wrinkle. Ask the chatterati why McSally lost and many of them will tell you that she was too Trumped-up. She had no choice, really. Fearing that Ward or POTUS’s buddy Arpaio would get to her right in the primary and race to an upset victory, McSally had to become a Trumpist. It worked — in the primary. There was no populist revolt but it opened the middle for Sinema and may have alienated some center-righties. As of August, remember, Arizona was the only state in the country with two Republican senators both of whom were openly hostile to the president and vice versa. It’s hard not to suspect that the bad blood between Trump on the one hand and McCain and Flake on the other tainted McSally among centrist GOPers who prefer McCain-Flake politics to the Trumpier version. What does McSally do to solve that problem in 2020, when POTUS will be on the ballot himself and forced to campaign in Arizona to try to replicate his narrow 2016 win there? Will anti-Trumpers forgive her for this year’s positioning? Will McSally move away from Trump in 2020, potentially alienating the other wing of the party? It’s tricky. But then, it’ll be tricky for whoever ends up in Kyl’s seat.
Exit question: Why didn’t Ducey name McSally to McCain’s seat when it first became vacant this summer? The answer, I assume, is that the incumbency advantage she would have derived from that would have been small and it might have ignited a backlash against the GOP, as voters would have viewed it as Ducey’s attempt to meddle in a Senate race that was already raging.