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Arizona Senator Jon Kyl on his run to replace Trent Lott as Whip of the Republicans

Monday, November 26, 2007
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HH: We begin it with our favorite United States Senator, the wonderful Jon Kyl from the great state of Arizona. Senator Kyl, great to have you.

JK: Wow, Hugh, what a great introduction. Thank you very much, great to be with you after Thanksgiving, and I hope yours was good, too.

HH: It was. Senator Kyl, obviously, the news of the day is your colleague, I know you’re close to him, Trent Lott has surprised us all and announced his retirement. And that raises a lot of questions. The most obvious one is will you be a candidate to succeed him as the number two Republican in the Senate?

JK: Yes, I will.

HH: That’s excellent news. What do you hear about if other people are going to get in it with you, or whether this is going to be by acclamation?

JK: Well, I don’t generally comment on such things. Let me just say that I wouldn’t have decided to try to take Trent’s place if I didn’t think that I had a good opportunity with my colleagues. We probably will have an election among the Senate Republicans the second week that we’re back in December. And my colleagues will make that decision then. I do need to say that Trent Lott has had an extraordinary career, both in the House and in the Senate. I first met him when I was elected in 1986, and he was already a rising star in the House, was the Whip there, and then of course became the Whip in the Senate, and then the Majority Leader. And he’s been a close friend, and just a tremendous Republican leader, whatever his position is, wherever he’s served.

HH: Senator Kyl, I know the reason I’m excited about your potential replacement of Senator Lott is not because Senator Lott isn’t a conservative. He is, but because activist conservatism is very different from other brands, and you’re an activist conservative. And I think you and Mitch McConnell would, and correct me if you think I’m wrong, be the most conservative leadership team that we’ve had in modern times in the Senate. Do you agree with that assessment?

JK: I do. I think that’s true. I would say that the combination of Trent Lott and Don Nichols certainly presented two very conservative Senators as well. Remember Don Nichols from…

HH: Sure, Oklahoma…

JK: …Oklahoma was Whip when Trent was Majority Leader. But our conference is a generally conservative conference, which nevertheless has a big tent for folks from states like Maine and Minnesota and Oregon who have different constituencies than some of the rest of us do. And so they may not be as conservative, but they’re equally good members of the Republican Senate Conference.

HH: Would you have to give up your chair on Judiciary, Senator Kyl, if you’re the Whip?

JK: No…

HH: Great, okay. Whew.

JK: The committees remain the same. I would stay on Judiciary and Finance Committee, but would be the Assistant Leader of the Republican Conference.

HH: Let me ask you about this. One of the reasons we talk so often is I enjoy learning about, and this audience values, what happens to our judicial appointees. And you’ve been a leader in the fight for fairness for President Bush’s judicial nominees, perhaps more than any other Republican. I know Senator Specter has gotten through the two Supreme Court justices, but we’ve lagged behind. Would have affect the way that you were operating as Whip with Senator McConnell, who’s also very concerned about that issue? Would it elevate that issue even more?

JK: Only in the sense that being on the Judiciary Committee, and living with this on a daily basis, I’d probably be more active with the Majority Leader in seeing to it that we found a way to get our circuit court nominees up for consideration. There’ve only been four hearings this entire year for President Bush’s circuit court nominees. Only five have been approved. The two year average for the last two years of the first Bush administration and the Clinton administration were fifteen or sixteen or seventeen circuit court judges. I think it was sixteen and seventeen. And obviously, at the rate that we’re going, considering that you’ll usually do about one a month, we’re not going to be able to make that. And the fault lies primarily with the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who really is dragging his feet. But the Republican leadership is going to have to step up and do the things which it can do to force action on these nominees.

HH: Is it fair to assume that if you are the Whip, along with Leader McConnell, that Democrats will get a very clear message about judicial nominees that what goes around comes around, and if it is President Clinton for two years, you, certainly having lived through this, won’t be forgetting how they treated our nominees?

JK: Well, that’s true. And it’s not a matter of retribution or pure politics as much as it is trying to determine where, how the rules will work in the Senate. Where is the fulcrum here? Tradition has a big part to play. And if one party never confirms all of the judges from the other side, then the other party has to figure look, if that’s the way it’s going to be, then we can’t establish a different rule when the party is, or when the president of the other party is in control. So it’s a matter of both parties establishing the rhythm and the traditions of the Senate. And you can’t have a Democrat Congress not approving Republican nominees, and yet the president, when a Democrat comes in, we just willy-nilly approve all of his nominees. It just can’t work that way.

HH: And you see, that’s what is thrilling to me about you being in that senior post in the leadership. You’re already in the leadership, but that Democrats can’t avoid that, and they can’t argue that with you when you’re on the floor. Now what about the idea of why we lost in ’06, Senator Kyl? How does that inform how you would be the Whip?

JK: Well, it’s certainly going to make me as aggressive as I can possibly be in insuring that the Republican agenda is laid out there, and that the public as much as possible understands that we are going to back our words with actions. Last time, you know, it wasn’t a matter of ideology. The American people are basically in sync with where Republican officeholders are. But they didn’t view us as practicing what we preached. And to some extent, they were right. They didn’t think that government could do anything right, and after all, we did have the majority in Congress and the presidency, and they thought that we were spending too much money, and now granted, Democrats will always spend more than Republicans, but we were in charge, so you could put some of the blame of that to the Republicans. Well now, we’re not in charge. And it’s up to Republicans, and certainly the Leader and the Assistant Leader have a big role to play in demonstrating to the public that we are willing to abide by the President’s budget, to support his vetoes of bills that exceed his budget, and generally go back to a more frugal position, and stop all of this wasteful Washington spending. That’s just one example. We will also support him and the troops and a strong national security posture, which of course, the Democrats have not been willing to do.

HH: Senator Kyl, it’s also, you’re a man of the West. And there haven’t been a lot of Westeners since Reagan who’ve been in the very leader, senior leadership of the Republican Party. Does that play into the Caucus’ decision as to say, you know, balance out, make sure we’ve got some regional representatives?

JK: It’s one of those things that’s sort of like number five or six on the list that you stop and think about, oh, by the way, are they all from one region of the country. But in our Conference, it really hasn’t played that big of a role. You’ve got McConnell who is from Kentucky, I would be obviously from Arizona. There probably would be a race for the Conference chairmanship. But it’s more a matter of balancing ideology and just the way that the people operate within the Conference more than it is region.

HH: Now talk to us about the prospects for ’08, because it looks to me like we’ve got fights on our hands, we’re behind in Virginia, we’re neck in neck in Colorado on Republican seats, we’ve got a couple of incumbents in Norm Coleman and other places in trouble, and we’ve only got really one realistic pick up, which is Louisiana. Have I got the map right?

JK: Pretty good. I wouldn’t be quite as negative about Norm Coleman in Minnesota. I think he’s going to win there, but it’s just a tough state. We’ve got a couple of other tough states. Susan Collins in Maine? No problem. She’s going to win. Gordon Smith in Oregon? He’s going to win. Now we have to support these candidates. But the reality is they’re running in tough states, as is Norm Coleman. I think they’re going to be fine. We do have a chance for a pick up in Louisiana. We’ve just elected a Republican governor there, and we have a very competent candidate running for the Senate against the incumbent Democrat Senator. So I think the prospects look very good. Democrats thought they might have a shot in states like Nebraska, where we have an open seat. I think we’re going to do just fine there. In Wyoming, where we have a new Senator, we’re going to do just fine there. In Idaho, where Larry Craig is not running for reelection, I think we’re going to do just great there. So actually, considering the fact that we’re defending twice as many states as Democrats, I think we’re going to do remarkably well.

HH: And Senator Kyl, obviously, fundraising is lagging. I read the numbers, you read the numbers.

JK: Yup.

HH: Is that part of your job as Whip, to whip up the fundraising?

JK: No, but…

HH: Or is that all Senator Ensign?

JK: Anybody in leadership has got to help, and so we’re all trying to help on this, and it is true. Chuck Schumer from New York is a prodigious fundraiser, and he’s got a lot of folks up in New York City that are willing to contribute to Democrats, until they find out, as they’re beginning to, that Democrats intend to tax them. And I think that is going to finally begin to cool off some of the support that he’s generated. But there’s no question he’s been able to raise more than we have, and that’s one of the areas where we’ve fallen down.

HH: Less than a minute, Senator, and boy, we hope you win this election, but a lot of people are going to call me now, and they’ll say you know, Jon Kyl was for opening the borders. And I know you weren’t. I knew you were trying to get the most conservative…and we disagreed on the bill. Do you think that’s going to dog you a little bit in this?

JK: Well, no, it’s not going to dog me in this. Remember, we weren’t for opening the borders…

HH: Right, right. I know that.

JK: I was simply for trying to take advantage of an opportunity to solve the problem once and for all in the workplace, and with the people that are here illegally, and so on. That wasn’t to be. That’s fine. It’s pretty clear that America has spoken. They want secure borders and the law enforced. And we are united as a Conference in that effort.

HH: Jon Kyl, a great pleasure talking to you. Thanks for giving us the interview today, and good luck in this race. We’ll stay close to it, and look forward to talking to you next time as Whip of the Republicans in the United States Senate.

JK: Appreciate it, Hugh.

End of interview.

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