Jon Kyl to retire. What next?

Now that it’s official that Senator Jon Kyl will not seek re-election, there’s a whole lot of political conversations taking place.

Going back to my political chessboard analogy, several elected and former elected officials are beginning to telegraph their next move on Arizona’s playing field. Here’s a quick assessment of the situation.

First the Democrats. As the new year began, I predicted that Kyrsten Sinema would be the voice and face of the Democratic party here in Arizona. She has. Her media exposure is up, she’s photogenic and she’s got her soundbites down to an art. Following closely behind is her colleague from Tempe, Senator David Schapira. He’s taken a lead on legislation and has also earned considerable media attention. Would either Sinema or Schapira have a chance for a US Senate seat in 2012? Probably not but let’s remember that a lot can happen between now and November, 2012.

Should House GOP members “drop the ball” on what they promised their constituents, voter attitude could quickly sour against Republicans. Another factor would be who Republicans nominate as their candidate for President. An old ill-tempered Washington insider-incumbent would snuff out the spark generated by the TEA Party revolution and give Obama the hope he craves to win a second-term. Regardless, Sinema or Schapira probably would not fair well in Arizona’s conservatarian political climate. Napolitano may also return to Arizona but a US Senate campaign would require a massive political makeover and a dose of voter amnesia to take place.

Let’s turn to Republicans.

Congressman Jeff Flake is clearly the front runner. Every political pundit knows he’s been chomping at the bit for years. He has the attitude for the job too – he’s always the first one from the delegation to head back to DC and the last one to come home. Most political consultants will tell you this race is his to lose. But Flake has some political liabilities and they’re big ones with Arizona conservatives. First, he has supported lackadaisical immigration reform. He prefers to call it “Comprehensive Immigration Reform” but many call it “Amnesty.” He’s buddied up with other amnesty advocates like Congressman Luis Gutierrez and made it clear that he wants a variety of immigration reforms in place.  To his recent credit, he voted against the DREAM Act. However, among social conservatives, Flake did vote to repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as recent as this last December. And as early as this week, Flake voted to renew provisions of the Patriot Act.

Then there are the political insiders who know the “Flake Political Machine.” Just as ruthless as the “McCain Mafia,” Jeff Flake’s people are hard-core, hard-ball, scorched-earth troopers. Case in point: the 2008 legislative district 18 GOP Primary challenge against Russell Pearce by Flake’s brother-in-law, Kevin Gibbons. Watch for Flake’s arch-defenders to wage political warfare on any challenger.

This leaves Congressman John Shadegg, who as early as the 2008 election cycle was showing disdain toward returning to Washington, D.C. Many remember he even indicated he would not seek re-election in 2008 but then changed his mind. Many pundits have long thought he would not seek a US Senate seat but then as recent as last fall, said he would consider it. There’s no doubt the backroom conversation is taking place or has already taken place between Shadegg and Flake. Among more conservative Republicans, Shadegg’s one political liability, TARP, is probably more forgivable than Flake’s open embrace of comprehensive immigration reform. Since the TEA Party’s rise, he’s been constantly reminded of that vote. And since then he’s publicly stated that he regretted making the vote. The question now is whether two political powerhouses would be willing to duke it out in the public arena. My guess is that Flake walks out of that backroom conversation smiling.

Who else could be taken serious entering a GOP Senate primary? Dean Martin, Trent Franks, Grant Woods? Each name carries some weight but would they consider challenging a colleague? Money would also be an issue. Woods, who ranks in the negatives with conservatives, would be tapping donors from the same pool as McCain and Flake. Martin, a darling among conservatives, would need to retool his fundraising abilities. That leaves Congressman Franks, who almost every conservative adores, to have to resort to hardball tactics against Flake’s machine. Anyone who knows Trent Franks, knows that hardball politics is not his character.

Would JD Hayworth consider another run against “The Establishment” candidate? I would venture to say yes. He’s the freshest candidate from a statewide Senate primary and he’s proven he can raise millions of dollars not only in state but across the country and in a short amount of time. And let’s not forget that JD’s no one to turn down a good political challenge against someone who is diametrically opposed to his position on immigration. If border security (whatever happened to McCain’s 10-Point Plan?) continues to experience the violence of drug cartels, armed confrontation and even murder, don’t rule a JD Hayworth candidacy out. Some conservatives might even call this political matchup a JD vs. McFlake redux.

Given that Flake enters the race for US Senate, that leaves a vacuum in the east valley which is even more complicated by the addition of a new congressional district. Former State Senator Chuck Gray has expressed serious consideration to fill either Flake’s vacant seat or the new congressional seat. TEA Party candidate, Jeff Smith, is also taking a serious look at entering either race. And don’t rule out a possible candidacy by Arizona Speaker of the House, Kirk Adams, who is proving himself worthy while serving in his current position. Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu has also been mentioned but given his focus on cleaning up Pinal County politics and fighting drug cartel runners, will likely remain serving as Sheriff. Other potential names include Pinal County Supervisor Bryan Martyn and Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio.

Other political seats that may likely change hands include Fulton Brock’s supervisorial district, Don Stapley’s supervisorial district and Maricopa County Sheriff. Conventional political wisdom is that Russell Pearce will seek Sheriff Joe’s seat once Arpaio retires.

All this makes great political theater right here in Arizona. Over the next few months, expect to see campaigns forming including Presidential campaigns. For those who live for high political drama, the stage is being set. Now it’s only a matter of time until the characters take that same stage.

And one last thing before I forget to mind my political manners, let me thank Senator Jon Kyl for his sacrifice and service to this great State of Arizona.