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The Senate Republican leadership team's quiet maverick, Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), could see his bid to succeed Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) as Whip derailed by his independent voting record.
Congressional leadership races are complicated, with several factors influencing Members' secret votes in what are generally high-stakes battles among close friends. Still, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) has enjoyed an assumed advantage over Alexander in the early stages of this contest.
In a head-to-head battle with Cornyn, Alexander could find that his greater willingness to cross the aisle on key floor votes dampens his prospects to move up. That could be even more salient if the Texan successfully caps off a four-year run at the NRSC by delivering control of the chamber to the GOP, especially after beginning his tenure in 2009 with the party barely able to sustain a filibuster.
A former Republican Senate aide said Alexander's voting record "is that extra something" that could further boost Cornyn into the No. 2 GOP leadership spot.
"Deep down, Members want a leader who will toe the party line and not stray," this Republican said. "They may like Alexander a lot. But the fact that Cornyn has helped elect waves of conservatives and votes more conservative — that's what Alexander could be up against."
Alexander, a former governor who ran for president in 1996, is far from a moderate, and he is personally close with, and has the confidence of, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Plus, sources said, he has been among the Conference's most forceful and effective advocates on major issues during the GOP's battles with Congressional Democrats and President Barack Obama. But the Tennessean votes with his party less than Cornyn does, according to statistics compiled by Congressional Quarterly.
This year, Alexander has voted with fellow Republicans 84 percent of the time; Cornyn has done so 92 percent of the time. In 2010, Alexander voted with his party 87 percent of the time compared with Cornyn's near-perfect 99 percent. In 2009, Alexander's party unity voting percentage was 77 percent; Cornyn's was 96 percent. From 2003 to 2008, Alexander voted with his party on average
92.5 percent of the time. Cornyn's average: 97 percent.
Last December, Alexander was among 13 Republicans — and the only GOP leader — to join Democrats in voting to ratify the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, a centerpiece of Obama's foreign policy strategy. In May, Alexander was among 11 Republicans to vote with Democrats, this time to end the filibuster of Obama judicial nominee John McConnell, who was deemed controversial by many conservatives. Alexander opposed McConnell for final confirmation.
Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.), another possible candidate for Whip, Conference chairman or NRSC chairman, joined Alexander in voting to end the filibuster of John McConnell and similarly opposed the nominee upon final confirmation.
But Cornyn supported the filibuster, and many Senate observers view the difference between him and Alexander on this vote as potentially significant in the Texan's favor. However, Republicans will consider more than floor votes when they cast their votes for Whip, and it's possible that Cornyn's perceived advantage will fail to materialize when the heavy campaigning begins one year from now.
"It's a decision made based upon what the needs are of the Conference. I'd say that the needs we have now and next year are totally different than they were four years ago," Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said. "The Senate, in a bipartisan way, is all about relationships. There's more legislation that's done in two Members' offices than there ever is on the Senate floor. It comes into play with leadership races. There's no substitution for the confidence that somebody has in you relative to whether they can vote for you."
Republican Senate aides and GOP operatives with relationships in the chamber note that, despite appearances, the Conference has remained ideologically diverse along the conservative spectrum, meaning that even if Alexander is viewed as less conservative than Cornyn, he could have a sizable constituency in a race that breaks along the candidates' voting records.
The Whip's job in most cases is to enforce party unity, which could play into some Members' calculations. Where additional factors come into play, as is expected, both Alexander and Cornyn have an opportunity to capitalize.
Cornyn, 59, has built a successful national fundraising network at the NRSC, earning kudos for his leadership of the committee, particularly because he sought the job when no one wanted it. Electing Cornyn as Whip could position him to succeed McConnell, 69, and a vote for him could signal a desire for long-term leadership stability. Viewed as more aggressive, Cornyn could profit in an environment where Members want a fresh face at the top.
Alexander, 71, ran for Whip in 2006, losing in a close vote to then-Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.). The Tennessean has cultivated close personal relationships with GOP Members across the ideological spectrum and is believed by some to have made stronger connections than Cornyn has, although the Texan is well-liked. Given his age, Alexander is likely to retire before Cornyn, and he could have the advantage if Members want to ensure their own ability to advance in leadership sooner.
One GOP lobbyist predicted the older Senators, plus Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), would support Alexander, leaving those in the middle in seniority and the newer Members to choose between the Tennessean as a "short-term placeholder" or Cornyn as their "long-term" future Conference leader.
"How many will want to install Cornyn over themselves?" this lobbyist said. The freshman class of 2010, with GOP establishment and tea party figures, could split its support, a second GOP lobbyist said.
The Whip campaign began in February, when Kyl announced he would retire in 2012. But after a few weeks of overt campaigning by Alexander, Cornyn and other GOP Members interested in moving up, the candidates went silent in response to rank-and-file Republicans' demands that they shelve the issue until after the elections. Accordingly, Alexander and Cornyn were hesitant to discuss the Whip race last week, although both said the contest has not disrupted Conference unity or leadership cohesion.
"Under some circumstances [that could happen]," Alexander said. "But I don't think that's going to happen here because our caucus has made absolutely clear to us that they don't want to hear any talk about leadership races." The Conference chairman declined when asked to give his opinion of what Members look for in a Whip, generally speaking. Cornyn, however, was willing to answer the question.
"They want to make sure their leadership doesn't embarrass them and that they work hard and try to advance the interests of the Conference as opposed to just their individual interest," the NRSC chairman said. "It's always a tough balance, as we've seen, between representing an individual state, which are the people who elect us and send us here and are our primary responsibility, but then also the responsibility to help lead a diverse group of Republicans in the Conference."