PHOENIX — Sen. Jon Kyl announced Thursday he will step down next year after three terms in office, creating yet another vacancy in a chamber about to undergo a significant makeover with several incumbents either stepping down or facing tough re-election challenges.
The decision to retire by Arizona's junior senator set off an immediate scramble for what will be Arizona's first open Senate seat in 18 years.
Kyl, who has become a leading conservative voice on foreign affairs, said at a news conference it was time to give someone else a shot at the seat he's held since 1994. He said he announced his retirement now to give fellow Republicans time to raise money and formulate their campaign strategies.
"I think it's probably going to be a pretty good year for Republicans," Kyl said of 2012. "We have a very strong bench of candidates who might want to seek the position. With all due respect to my Democratic friends, I don't think there are as many candidates on their side that would have the prospect of winning."
Until a month ago, one of the top prospective candidates to take on Kyl seemed to be Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. But now, Giffords is recovering from a gunshot to the head, slowly regaining basic functions and speaking for the first time in the past few days.
Still, some Democrats believe she could recover enough to run.
"She clearly has a hard road ahead of her, but I know that she is a fighter and I have every expectation that she is going to make a strong recovery and I believe as the months go forward, she will take a hard look at running for the U.S. Senate," State Democratic Party Chairman Andrei Cherny.
Kyl is the fifth senator to announce plans to retire in recent weeks, and his departure comes as welcome news to Democrats who a day earlier heard Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia announce he wouldn't run again. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said Kyl's decision made the seat "a prime pickup opportunity."
But although Democrats have won several statewide races in the past decade, Arizona Republicans still lead in voter registration and were hugely successful in the midterm elections.
"This is the Republican Party's seat to lose," said Doug Cole, a Republican political consultant who is an adviser and former campaign aide to Republican Gov. Jan Brewer. "We have a deep bench of potential candidates whereas the other party's bench is lacking."
In Washington, Arizona Republican Rep. Jeff Flake told reporters he's weighing a bid, and the chief consideration is "whether I can win."
Former Gov. Janet Napolitano, currently the U.S. Homeland Security secretary, would be the strongest Democratic candidate, said Patrick Kenney, Arizona State University political science professor. She's won statewide office three times and would have a strong fundraising advantage, he said.
But Kenney also said Napolitano would face attacks from Republicans for having quit in the middle of her second term as governor to go to Washington at the beginning of a state budget crisis.
Kyl will keep his Republican whip post — the second-ranking job in the party's hierarchy — until he retires after the November 2012 election.
Kyl, 68, whose father was a congressman from Iowa, served 10 years in the U.S. House before being elected to the Senate. He was re-elected twice, most recently in 2006 when he beat developer Jim Pederson, a former state Democratic Party chairman.
Kyl has become a leading conservative voice on foreign affairs, though his clout is often overshadowed by fellow Arizona Sen. John McCain. He most recently made headlines for his opposition to a U.S.-Russia nuclear treaty that was a top foreign policy priority of President Barack Obama.
"I think it's a big loss for the country," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said of his No. 2 while attending the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering of party activists. "The good news is that he'll be here for the next two years."
Kyl said he'll spend the time before he leaves office forming a coalition with other retiring senators to work without political pressures on issues like immigration reform and entitlements.
Kyl is the fifth senator to announce plans to retire, with Jim Webb, D-Va., Kent Conrad, D-N.D., Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., all leaving after 2012.
"I've already talked to Sen. Lieberman this morning about the possibility, now that we're two lame ducks, as it were," Kyl said. "And there are some other members of the Senate who are not running, both Republicans and Democrats. We might be able to get a little caucus together and move on some issues that are more difficult for others."
He said he does not know what he will do after leaving office, but it won't involve elected office.
"As a leader in the Senate and one of the most well respected members, he will be sorely missed," McCain said in a statement. "Jon will most assuredly go down in history as one of Arizona's most effective advocates in Washington."
Kyl entered the Senate by winning a seat held by Democrat Dennnis DeConcini, who did not run for a fourth term. He defeated Democrat Sam Coppersmith, a one-term U.S. representative, by a nearly 3-2 margin.
In 2000, Kyl cruised to re-election when Democrats didn't even bother putting up a candidate. Kyl crushed two minor party candidates and an independent. Six years later, Kyl had a roughly 150,000-vote edge over Pederson, out of roughly 1.5 million votes cast.
Pederson, a shopping center developer, sunk $10 million of his own money into the race.
Associated Press writers Kevin Freking in Washington contributed.