Sen. Jon Kyl retirement sets off two races: one in Arizona, another in D.C.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona announces his retirement, opening the door to candidates for his Senate seat as well as his position as the No. 2 Republican in the Senate.

Alex Brandon/AP/File
Republican Whip Sen. Jon Kyl, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, talks with a reporter on Capitol Hill in Washington on Dec. 19, 2010. Kyl announced that he would retire at the end of his term in 2012.

Three-term Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona has announced he will not run for reelection in 2012, setting off two races: one to fill his seat in the Senate and another to fill his spot in the Republican leadership.

A day after the Republicans gained hope for a Senate pickup in Virginia with the announcement that Sen. Jim Webb (D) of Virginia will not run for reelection, Senator Kyl’s retirement notice Thursday gave the Democrats their own little glimmer of optimism. Kyl was a lock for reelection had he decided to run. An open-seat race loosens the calculation a bit.

“While Kyl's retirement doesn't put the seat in immediate jeopardy, it creates a small opening for Democrats, and potentially a bigger one if they can recruit the right candidate,” the nonpartisan Cook Political Report said on its website. “Thus, the race moves to Likely Republican until and if Democrats recruit a first-tier challenger.”

Arizona has not sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1988, but the state has become increasingly competitive in presidential races. In 2008, native son John McCain, the state’s senior senator and GOP presidential nominee, beat Barack Obama in Arizona by only 8.5 percentage points. Arizona’s large Latino population, in particular, makes the state fertile ground for Democrats. Nationally, President Obama won two-thirds of the Latino vote in 2008.

But in the race to replace Kyl, the Republicans seem to have a stronger bench. Already, Rep. Jeff Flake, a tea party favorite who has gained national notice as a budget hawk, is reportedly leaning toward running. Other Republicans to watch include just-retired Rep. John Shadegg, former state Attorney General Grant Woods, and former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, a tea partyer who ran against Senator McCain in the GOP Senate primary last year.

On the Democratic side, the top “get” would be Janet Napolitano, who was governor of Arizona until President Obama tapped her to head the Department of Homeland Security. Two Democratic members of the Arizona House delegation – Ed Pastor and Raul Grijalva – are also possibilities. Another delegation member, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, would have been seen as a top-tier choice, if not for her near-fatal shooting in Tucson last month.

Kyl is the fifth senator to announce plans to retire next year and the second Republican. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas is the only other Republican so far. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut, who caucuses with the Democrats, is also not running. The Democrats are Senator Webb and Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota.

Kyl’s retirement will also set off a battle for the No. 2 spot in the Senate Republican caucus behind minority leader Mitch McConnell. Political prognosticators are handicapping a potential race to replace Kyl between the No. 3 Republican, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The Republicans are in strong position to retake control of the Senate in 2012, and so the No. 2 slot is an especially big plum.

Kyl announced his retirement Thursday in a hastily organized news conference in Phoenix, offering nothing more specific about his decision except that “it’s time.”

"Let me hasten to say that there is nothing negative about the decision that I am making," Kyl said. "My health is good. I'm fairly confident that if I ran for reelection again that I could be reelected. I do not subscribe to this notion that politics has gotten so coarse these days that civil people can't engage in it. I try to do it civilly and learned long ago that there will be people who don't engage in civil discourse, but if you [let that stop you] from serving, then you really ought to get into another line of work. There's nothing about that that causes me to step down.... There is no reason, other than the fact that I think it's time."

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