Sen. Jon Kyl, who had been comfortable working behind the scenes during his 20-year political career in Arizona, has emerged this year as a chief spokesman for the Republicans. Consider the screen time he’s garnered following an overnight stay at Camp David, Md., as a guest of President Bush on Jan. 12
Kyl appeared on the NBC political news program “Meet the Press” two days later to support the president’s decision to send more U.S. troops to Iraq.
Since then, the newly re-elected senator has appeared nearly daily on news programs across tele- vision and radio spectrums to discuss the war and the changing political scene in Washington. Today he is set to appear on CNN’s “Late Edition,” which airs at 9 a.m.
Kyl’s sudden celebrity came packaged with his election as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference Committee, a leadership position that places him in charge of driving the party’s communications efforts. The position also makes him the third-ranking member of the Senate Republicans’ leadership structure — one spot up from his previous position as chairman of the Republican Policy Committee.
The conference committee chairmanship is vital to advancing the party’s political positions, and Kyl, who takes a detailed-oriented approach to everything, has set about restructuring the Senate GOP’s public outreach efforts.
He wants the party’s messages to be more broad-based and fact-based than they were before the 2006 elections, which saw Republicans give up majorities in both the Senate and House.
“The job has historically been to take whatever message is coming out of our conference, usually developed by our leadership, and making sure all of our members have all the materials they need to convey that in a consistent, semantic way,” Kyl said.
He said the party’s leadership does that through a series of news conferences and “stake-outs.”
Stake-out is a term used in Washington to describe the practice of reporters congregating in locations where they are likely to encounter newsmakers. According to Kyl’s strategy, senators will be prepared and well versed in the party line and venture into stake-outs to distribute the messages.
One of Kyl’s first orders of business was bolstering the conference committee’s staff with three key hires: Ron Bonjean, Stephen Duffield and Andy Chasin.
Bonjean, who takes over as executive director, previously worked as communications director for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
Duffield, the policy director and chief counsel, previously served as deputy staff director of the policy committee, where he supervised development of policy papers for Kyl.
Chasin joined the staff after working as Kyl’s chief spokesman during his 2006 re-election campaign against Democratic challenger Jim Pederson.
Overall, the committee has a staff of about 20.
About half develop position statements and background information that lawmakers can use when discussing measures on the Senate floor. Other staff members support the committee’s in-house television and radio studios, which lawmakers use for media interviews.
Kyl himself met with Republican senators early in the month to outline their approach to January’s legislative agenda, and he plans to meet again Feb. 2 to develop a longterm approach.
Every GOP senator should be prepared to discuss party positions in well-reseasoned detail, Kyl told the Tribune. Previously, a select few were entrusted to carry the party message.
“The key here is what we communicate,” Kyl said. “But obviously, you’re more effective with the more of it you do, so it’s both quality and quantity.”
Kyl also said the party seeks a unified voice.
“Our primary point here is not just to have a cacophony of voices, but everyone articulating a common theme, to the extent that we can agree on that,” he said. “Not all issues lend themselves to that kind of communication, but to try to pick three or four key things and make sure that by the end of the year, the American people have a pretty clear sense that we were trying to accomplish those things.”
The Hill, a newspaper that covers Congress, reported last week that senior aides to Kyl and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., met with spokesmen for all Republican senators to bring them onboard with Kyl’s strategy.
“His skills are incredible. I mean, I think he’s really one of the very best senators on both sides of the aisle that we have here now,” McConnell said.
Kyl’s reputation as a background player, which was highlighted in a Time magazine article last year, is misleading, McConnell said.
“He is good both behind the scenes and good on the floor,” McConnell said. “He’s a good speaker. He’s articulate. He’s good out front as well. He’s one of our best member on weekend shows and is very good at articulating a Republican message.”
Kyl’s studious demeanor and political perspective is well suited for the job, said John Samples, an analyst for the Cato Institute, a libertarian-leaning Washington think tank.
“He’s sort of a modern conservative,” Samples said. “He’s affable. He comes across well in the media.”
Kyl also enters the session fresh from a re-election victory against former Arizona Democratic Party chairman Jim Pederson, who ran a multimillion campaign straight from the national Democratic Party’s playbook — Iraq, immigration reform, energy independence and ethics reform.
Kyl came away with a nearly 10-percentage point victory on a November night when Republicans across the country were thumped out of office.
That gives Kyl a certain amount of cachet among his colleagues, who are notoriously difficult to keep on message, said Samples, an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md.
“Senators are indeed like herding cats,” Samples said. “They are a lot more independent, and the leadership has a lot less of a grip on them.”
Kyl, an attorney by profession, credited his high-profile 2006 political campaign for sharpening his media repertoire. During the campaign, which marked his first full-on campaign since the first Clinton administration, the incumbent senator championed GOP planks during three live television debates and numerous news conferences, public speaking engagements and stake-out interviews. He figures he can offer persuasive and detailed policy summaries for the entire party.
Plus, Kyl reviews his outreach efforts continuously to ensure that he remains on-message himself. “I critique myself every time,” he said. “I mean, you always evaluate your performance. I think, by and large, I do a good job.”