Sen. Jon Kyl is seeking to become the Senate minority whip, the No. 2 leadership position among Senate Republicans.
He currently holds the No. 3 position, the conference chairman. Kyl wants to succeed Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., who announced Monday that he will retire by the end of the year.
Kyl was in Arizona during the Senate’s two-week Thanksgiving Day recess Monday but declined to discuss the matter publicly with the Tribune. He was believed to be calling Senate colleagues Monday to build support for a run.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told the Tribune that the “smart money” is on Kyl to win the post.
Perhaps the best indication of Kyl’s presumed ascension was a scramble among several senators angling to replace Kyl at the No. 3 spot. Among them is Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who lost to Lott by a single vote for the No. 2 job a year ago.
Senate Republicans have yet to schedule leadership elections, but they are certain to be held before the end of the year and possibly as early as next week.
Among the factors working in Kyl’s favor: He stands on the conservative side of the Republican party; he currently holds the conference chairman post; and he was re-elected to a third six-year term last year. All of those traits usually are viewed as positive attributes for the whip position.
The whip is responsible for mobilizing votes among Senate Republicans on major issues. Also, the whip serves as acting minority leader when the leader is absent.
Kyl, 65, who has been known throughout his career as a behind-the-scenes operator, is poised to take the more visible position, Graham said.
“I can’t think of anybody more respected. He’s been a good conference chair. His colleagues have a lot of confidence in his ability to run the conference. He’s a real thoughtful, intellectual guy, but he also knows how to deliver a message so the average person understands it,” Graham said.
Kyl would bring even stauncher conservative credentials to the whip position than Lott did, said Brooks Simpson, a history professor at Arizona State University.
“Kyl tends to touch more with social and religious conservatism (than) did Lott, so I think that would move the party a little bit in that direction, although I’m not sure how much, because I think Republicans are united, more than anything else, by their opponents,” Simpson said.
President Bush also likely would view Kyl’s candidacy favorably, because Bush and Kyl are closely aligned on most policy matters, and in particular, on the war in Iraq, Simpson said.
Other senators are likely to campaign for whip before a vote is held, Graham said.
“The good news for Republicans is we have a lot of talented people to choose from, but I would think the smart money’s probably on Jon Kyl,” he said.
Arizona’s senior senator, Republican John McCain, could not be reached for comment.
Kyl has held the conference chairman post, which positioned him as the party’s chief spokesman, since the beginning of the year.
Kyl issued a statement Monday afternoon commending Lott for his service but avoided discussion of the whip position.
“I have been privileged to spend much of my career serving with Trent, first in the House of Representatives and then in the Senate. His friendship and his leadership have meant a great deal to me, and I know I speak for many when I say that it is difficult to imagine the Congress without him,” Kyl said.