Sen. Jon Kyl’s decision to retire in 2012 could ignite a succession scramble, both on Capitol Hill within the GOP leadership team and in Arizona among Republicans who have their eye on higher office.
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) is expected to announce a Senate bid, perhaps within days, according to a knowledgeable Republican source. “An announcement is coming in a few days and there’s a strong likelihood that he will run,” this source said. According to a Democratic House aide, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) would have almost certainly been a candidate as well prior to last month’s shootings in Tucson.
In Washington, a trio of top Republican Senators may angle for Kyl’s Minority Whip slot. The No. 2 position in the Senate Republican leadership could become the Majority Whip position in 2013 depending on the outcome of the 2012 elections, and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) and Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.) are expected to consider running for it.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who currently holds the No. 3 spot in leadership, plans to run for the Whip job, an aide said Thursday.
Kyl’s announcement and the opportunity to move up in leadership could also affect Thune’s decision on whether to run for president. That decision is expected by month’s end. Kyl’s exit could also open the door for other ambitious Republicans to enter the leadership ranks. Some of the initial names on that list include Sens. Mike Johanns (Neb.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Rob Portman (Ohio), among other freshmen.
Cornyn will clearly be looking for another leadership position for the 113th Congress, given he is in the midst of his second consecutive cycle as NRSC chairman and is up for re-election in 2014. Some Republican Senate aides have said he could have an edge in any leadership contest if the GOP retakes the majority in 2012.
Alexander has a network of strong relationships through the GOP Conference and could prove formidable should he run.
And Thune is strong with Senate GOP conservatives and could pose a strong challenge for Whip.
In Arizona, Democrats now see Kyl’s seat as a prime pickup opportunity in an otherwise challenging 2012 cycle. The Democrats ran strong in the Grand Canyon State in the 2006 and 2008 cycles, with the pendulum swinging back toward the GOP in 2010. Sen. John McCain (R) won re-election by a wide margin in November, and the Republican brand is again strong in the state.
“Sen. Kyl’s announcement has instantaneously catapulted Arizona to a prime pickup opportunity for Senate Democrats this cycle,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Eric Schultz said.
Flake, meanwhile, is considered among the GOP’s top potential recruits.