Democrats ponder the possibilities in the 2012 Arizona Senate race

The possibility of a Democratic election miracle in Arizona emerged Thursday as Sen. Jon Kyl (R) said he would retire and Democratic operatives wondered if Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) might be healthy enough to run next year.

Giffords is recuperating from a gunshot wound to the head inflicted in a Tucson, Ariz., mass shooting in January. It won’t be known for quite some time if she will fully recover from the massive injury.

Yet, Giffords has made significant progress. She is seeing friends, who talk hopefully of her return to Washington. At the annual Washington Press Club Foundation congressional dinner on Wednesday, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Shultz (D-Fla.) suggested Giffords might be attending next year’s function.

After Giffords’s condition was upgraded, the lawmaker’s husband, NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, announced he will command the space shuttle Endeavour when it launches in April.

With Kyl announcing that he would not seek reelection in 2012, Giffords’s recovery takes on a new, more political realm.

She is widely considered the Democrats’ ideal candidate for the seat. And according to an Arizona Democratic insider with close ties to the lawmaker’s office, Giffords told her staff not long before she was shot that she would run were Kyl to retire.

Another Democratic strategist with knowledge of Giffords’s thinking at the time said she was seriously looking at a Senate bid, and that Democrats anticipated she could run even if Kyl opted for reelection.

In order to win in the red state of Arizona, Democrats need a strong candidate. Former President George W. Bush easily captured the state in 2000 and 2004, as did Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008.

There is no indication that Giffords would run even if her recovery were to progress fast enough. Democrats are reluctant to speculate on that possibility.

But they are very cautiously noting that Election Day is still nearly two years away. “If she decides to run, she’s a strong fundraiser and highly respected public servant,” one party operative said.

Democrats face a daunting task in retaining their Senate majority because they are defending twice as many seats as are Republicans. But Giffords could be expected to be a popular candidate, made more so by the attack on her in Tucson, the nationwide shock and an outpouring of sympathy across the country.

Another possible Democratic candidate is Janet Napolitano, the state’s popular former governor who now serves as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. 

Kyl, the Senate minority whip, said at a press conference in Arizona on Thursday that he won’t seek a fourth term, setting off a competitive race for his seat and, among Senate Republicans, for his spot in the GOP leadership.

The vacancy will force Republicans to defend an additional open Senate seat during a cycle in which they hope to win control of the chamber.

Democrats touted Kyl’s retirement as a pick-up opportunity for their party.

“Sen. Kyl’s announcement has instantaneously catapulted Arizona to a prime pick-up opportunity for Senate Democrats this cycle,” said Eric Schultz, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s communications director, in a statement.

Republicans, by contrast, are projecting confidence. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the head of Senate Republicans’ campaign efforts, said he was “confident that this seat will remain in Republican hands.”

McCain easily won his 2010 reelection campaign in Arizona with 60 percent of the vote after fending off a conservative primary challenge from former Rep. J.D. Hayworth.

Hayworth told The Hill Thursday he is considering running, saying he received calls from Tea Party activists encouraging him to enter the race.

“I’m very flattered people are asking me to run,” he said. 

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who has led the charge to eliminate earmarks in congressional legislation, would be considered an early front-runner in the primary, according to GOP sources.

“It’s Kyl’s day,” said Flake, when asked if he were contemplating a Senate bid. “We’ll have an announcement soon enough.”

Another Republican considered capable of winning the nomination is former Rep. John Shadegg (Ariz.), who retired last year.

In an interview, Shadegg said he would urge Kyl to reconsider because “the state needs him.” He wouldn’t talk about whether he’d run for the seat if Kyl stuck with his decision to retire.

Conservative Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) also said he’s “seriously considering” a run.

Kyl’s decision will also trigger a race for the No. 2 spot in the Republican leadership. 

The speculation on Capitol Hill is that race could come down between Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), the No. 3 Republican in the upper chamber, and Cornyn, who serves as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

In a release Thursday, Alexander did not address whether he will seek Kyl’s post: “Year in and year out, Jon Kyl has been everyone’s nominee for Most Valuable Player in the United States Senate. We will miss his leadership.”

Cornyn is focused on “serving the people of Texas and winning back the majority in the United States Senate,” said an aide to the NRSC chairman, adding that it was premature to talk about a race to succeed Kyl.

If Republicans were to win back the Senate next year, Cornyn’s political stock would soar.

At press time, Sen. Mike Johanns (Neb.) announced he will seek the GOP leadership post that Alexander now holds.  

The opening could also give a high-profile conservative, like Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a chance to join the leadership. It could also affect Sen. John Thune’s (R-S.D.) decision on whether to run for president in 2012; he could opt instead to move up the leadership ladder in the Senate, possibly to the No. 4 spot.

Kyl is the fifth senator this cycle (and the second Republican) to announce his retirement. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), and Jim Webb (D-Va.). also will not seek reelection.

Kyl denied deciding to retire due to his own fears of a possible primary challenge, and pledged to remain neutral in the GOP primary to replace him — “at least for a while.”

“When we ran last time, in 2006, after that election we talked about it and I said that after these six years, I would probably not want to run again,” he said of deliberations with his family.

Kyl noted that he hadn’t done any significant fundraising to prepare for a 2012 campaign, and that, by announcing his retirement now, possible Republican candidates would have time to organize their own campaigns.

The 68-year-old lawmaker left open the door for serving as a running mate for the eventual Republican nominee for president in 2012.

“That is the only office that I would ever consider,” Kyl said. 

Russell Berman, Molly K. Hooper and Sean J. Miller contributed to this article.

This story was posted at 12:41 p.m. and updated at 8:40 p.m.

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