Sen. Jon Kyl’s greatest political achievement is the Arizona Water Settlements Act of 2005, a deal he brokered for more than a decade.
The pact resolved disputes among the Gila River Indian Community, the Tohono O’odham Nation and non-Indian water users.
Perhaps the only feat more difficult than finding common ground among those involved would be finding anyone else who has even heard about it.
In contrast, Sen. John McCain’s political highlights all bear his name. Among the most current selections: The McCain-Kennedy immigration bill, the McCain-Feingold campaignfinance bill, the McCain anti-torture bill.
The differences in styles between Arizona’s Republican political odd couple is coming into sharper focus as Kyl and McCain prepare for career-defining political races.
“They are two just wildly different personalities,” political analyst Bruce Merrill said. “Their constituencies are completely different.”
Kyl is footnotes. McCain is headlines.
Kyl is facing serious competition for the first time this decade in his bid for a third six-year term in the U.S. Senate in November. He’s pitted against former Arizona Democratic Party chairman Jim Pederson, a deep-pocketed developer. The last time out, no Democrats opposed him.
“We always say, ‘This is the most important election in years.’ This one is important,” Kyl told the Tribune.
The stakes are twofold: Kyl is trying to keep his own political career on track; plus, he wants to do his part to maintain Republican control in the Senate.
Meanwhile, McCain is facing all comers in a possible, but still unannounced, presidential election in 2008 to follow up on his failed 2000 presidential bid.
He dutifully side-stepped a question about his latest presidential aspirations while speaking to a California business group on March 18, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
“Any senator not facing a health issue or under indictment is considered a candidate for president,” McCain joked.
Of course, the fact that he spent a portion of the Senate’s spring break in San Diego rather than San Luis said plenty by itself. Kyl’s campaign and McCain’s quasi-campaign have underscored their dissimilarities.
Kyl’s power base is grounded in Washington politics and protocol. He is a detail-oriented lawyer, a lowprofile policy wonk who scolds friends who give excessively glowing introductions at his own fundraisers.
In contrast, McCain’s power base flows from the public. The ex-U.S. Navy fighter pilot is a ready-for-prime-time TV talk show regular who’s one of the country’s most recognizable political figures.
“The principal difference between the two is perceived personality,” said Bob Grossfeld, president of The Media Guys, a Scottsdale-based polling and media consulting firm.
“When McCain is doing television appearance or movie walk-ons or whatever, it’s all very controlled and very likeable and very warm and charming,” he said.
“Kyl is more of a guy who steps forward along with a group of others after a hearing and is very reserved,” Grossfeld said.
In reality, the senators’ personalities may be starkly different, but their their media personalities are set, said Grossfeld, who usually works for Democratic candidates. Kyl’s political insider persona increasingly is getting him included in Washington’s political buzz.
Last year, other insiders mentioned him as a possible nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court following the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist. President Bush eventually nominated a pair of sitting judges, Samuel Alito and John Roberts, rather than the senator.
A few weeks ago, National Review political reporter John J. Miller speculated that Kyl could succeed Vice President Dick Cheney, should Cheney step down for health reasons.
“There’s a senator from Arizona. No, not that senator — the other one,” Miller wrote Feb. 17. “Jon Kyl is well liked by all of the vital constituencies within conservatism and his record as a leader in Congress is impressive, especially on foreign policy.”
The obvious problem with that scenario is that Cheney hasn’t indicated he intends to leave office before the end of his term. In fact, Cheney appeared at a Kyl fundraiser in Tucson last month.
Kyl dismissed all the political buzz as just so much noise. “There’s nothing to it,” he told the Tribune. “Just understand that.”
Still, the “other” senator from Arizona is getting noticed for a change, though it isn’t always comfortable for him.
Arizona Republican Party chairman Matt Salmon said he unintentionally embarrassed Kyl when he introduced him at a fundraiser a few months ago. He called Kyl one of the smartest people he’d ever met.
“I gave him this glowing introduction and afterward he got mad at me,” said Salmon, a former U.S. representative. “He said, ‘Matt, can you ease up on the exaggeration?’ ”
In contrast, McCain thrives in the spotlight. His entire spring break travel itinerary featured New York, San Diego, Los Angeles, Seattle, Iraq, Jordan and Kuwait. He appeared with California Gov. Arnold Schwartzenegger in Los Angeles and made headlines at every stop.
Kyl credits McCain for getting as much screen time as he does on TV talk shows and news broadcasts. Kyl said he’s available to appear on the Sunday morning programs, but he just doesn’t receive many invitations. The exact reason eludes him.
“Talk to the producers of the TV shows,” he said. “I’ll tell you what — I’ll hire you on my staff if you can figure out how to break that code.”
McCain, more than any other politician in the nation, understands how the media works, Merrill said. At times, he criticizes the president’s policies, as he did on the torture issue. At other times, he defends Bush’s positions, as he did on immigration.
One result is that he draws support from Republicans, independents and Democrats alike. Another result is that Republican leaders don’t always consider him a “team player,” Merrill said.
“McCain is famous — or infamous — for having a short fuse and a bad temper, but he doesn’t let anyone see that,” Grossfeld said.
For all of Kyl and McCain’s differences though, their political positions are surprisingly similar. They’re both oldschool Republicans — or at least they vote like old-school Republicans.
CQ Weekly, a news magazine that covers Congress and national politics, analyzed how often senators followed Bush’s positions when voting on legislative matters last year.
Kyl agreed with the president on 89 percent of the votes, while McCain sided with the president 77 percent of the time, the magazine’s Jan. 9 issue reported.
Kyl and McCain even are similar when they differ with Bush. For example, both Arizona senators voted against the administration’s transportation and energy bills, because of what they felt were wasteful spending provisions in the bills.
They confer frequently, but largely divide top issues between themselves, Kyl said.
Kyl’s specialities: Water rights, judicial nominees, the Patriot Act and national security.
McCain’s fortes: Campaign finance reform, Iraq policies and veterans’ issues. Both are involved in immigration and border matters, though, here again, they have varying views.
The division works, according to those who have worked with them.
“There’s not a person in the entire Congress that’s more knowledgable about water issues, especially in the Southwest, than Senator Kyl. He’s the best. Nobody else is even close,” Salmon said.
Meanwhile, McCain’s influence is so strong, every campaign-reform bill is measured by his reaction to it, said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
“He has people in the House, some of my leadership and others, complaining that he is the gold standard on reform. ‘If it passes McCain’s muster, then we’ll be all right, we can get by with it. But if not, we won’t,’ ” Flake said.