Originally Published: September 5, 2018 6:32 p.m.
PHOENIX — Arizona carries a reputation as one of the country's political flashpoints, with heated debates over immigration, rambunctious populists and a divided GOP.
But the man who had the attention of the nation's political establishment this week is a buttoned-down former ice cream company executive running for a second term as governor.
Doug Ducey, the onetime CEO of Cold Stone Creamery, on Tuesday named former Sen. Jon Kyl to temporarily return to the Senate to fill the vacancy created by John McCain's death.
The move is a big win for conservatives in the Senate, where the Republicans have only a two-vote majority as a confirmation vote of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh looms. But it was also a relatively safe pick that won't stir up much controversy within party ranks, a maneuver that experts say is in line with the way Ducey has governed.
"It's not the time for newcomers and now is not the time for on-the-job training," Ducey said. "Arizona needs someone who can hit the ground running on day one and that's Jon Kyl."
Mario Diaz, a Democratic strategist who worked for former Gov. Janet Napolitano and supports Ducey, said picking Kyl fits Ducey's pattern.
"He's brought stability to the state," Diaz said. "Prior to his administration, it was just a very disorienting, confusing time for Arizona in many ways."
Ducey's Republican predecessor, Jan Brewer, feuded with President Barack Obama over immigration and clashed with hyper-conservative state lawmakers, as did Democrat Napolitano.
By contrast, Ducey has cut through the middle of the state's often-warring GOP. He's embraced President Donald Trump on traditional Republican goals like lowering taxes or putting conservative justices like Kavanaugh on the bench, while keeping an arm's length from more divisive issues like football players protesting police brutality and racial inequality.
Democrats have criticized Ducey's approach, saying it serves corporate and political interests. Challenger David Garcia blasted Ducey's pick of Kyl for paving the way for Kavanaugh's confirmation. State Democratic Party chairwoman Felecia Rotellini said Ducey's ability to dodge fights with the Republican base is self-serving.
"He really hasn't acted as a leader in this state, but as a classic politician who is using his governor's position as a platform for himself, to be in the pocket of outside interests who want to undermine public education, who want to cut affordable health care," she said.
After McCain's death, Ducey's office helped coordinate memorial services in Phoenix. Ducey suspended his campaign for a week and did not hold a celebration the night he clinched a primary victory. He spoke at one of McCain's memorials in Arizona and flew to Washington for the funeral.
But he withheld announcing a successor until after McCain's burial. By law, his only requirement was to pick a Republican.
Some operatives wonder if Ducey would someday run for the Senate. But he tamped down that speculation on Tuesday, saying he has "an executive personality" and that Kyl himself advised him to never enter Congress.
Like many in Arizona, Ducey comes from somewhere else. He moved from Ohio in 1982 to attend Arizona State University, where he met his wife Angela. He worked at Hensley & Co. — the same Anheuser-Busch distributor owned by Cindy McCain's family — and at Procter & Gamble before joining Cold Stone Creamery.
His first foray into politics was in 2010, when he was elected state treasurer. He served one term before being elected governor in 2014.
Ducey still appears more at home in a board room than in a room full of politicians. This approach has endeared him to the business community.
Glenn Hamer, the president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says Ducey is a prime reason for businesses relocating to Arizona and why the economy is "firing on all cylinders."
But laying out a welcome mat comes with risks. Ducey in 2015 signed an executive order to allow self-driving vehicle testing in the state. This spring, an Uber vehicle in autonomous mode struck and killed a pedestrian, prompting him to suspend testing.
Arizona also was a testing ground for ill-fated startup Theranos. Ducey signed a law that allowed patients to get blood tests without a doctor's orders, paving the way for Theranos to set up shop inside Walgreens stores. But this year, prosecutors charged former executives with fraud, citing misleading statements about the accuracy of its technology.
Ducey also is contending with widespread concerns about Arizona's public education system. A six-day teacher walkout this spring saw tens of thousands of educators gather on the front lawn of the Capitol.
While his proposal to give teachers a 20-percent raise over the next three years was passed, the raises fell short of demands for $1 billion in new classroom funding. Now, many of those teachers are backing Garcia, an education professor who has criticized Ducey as being beholden to special interests.
Tom Volgy, a political science professor at the University of Arizona, thinks the current political climate makes him vulnerable in November.
"If things were normal in American politics, his style would be very helpful for him in Arizona, because he'd attract a lot of independents," Volgy said. "But right now there is a lot of anger and crying out for leadership and I think it's possible his style gets drowned out in this."