Kyl Guards McCain’s Right Flank

Posted April 26, 2010 at 6:55pm

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl flies home to Arizona most weekends for a packed schedule of campaigning, fundraising and conservative grass-roots organizing as he warily eyes a competitive Republican primary.

But not for himself.

Sen. John McCain is running for a fifth term, and Kyl has made his top priority the re-election of his friend and home-state colleague to whom he has grown increasingly close. Aides to both Republicans describe their relationship as symbiotic, with Kyl’s penchant for detailed specificity complementing McCain’s big-picture outlook.

Despite differing opinions on some issues, they have collaborated over the years on many policy initiatives, while also deferring to each other depending on the required area of expertise. Their bonds are evident on the campaign trail, where Kyl is using his immense credibility with conservatives to shore up McCain’s right flank — a liability for the longtime political maverick.

“My assurance to them of his strong convictions — the way that he’s been able to spread our message to people beyond just our core base — and the way that he has led here in the Senate I think has helped to reassure them that he is a huge asset for the conservative cause and for the Republican Conference,” Kyl said in an interview. “That’s probably the biggest thing I can do is to help reassure people of the role he plays.”

“It’s my top priority,” Kyl added, in discussing where McCain’s race ranks on his political to-do list. “Obviously my second priority is to elect as many Republicans as possible this year. But that starts with my colleague in Arizona.”

Kyl won a House seat in 1986, the same year McCain advanced to the Senate, and the two have served together ever since. Kyl won his Senate seat in 1994. They were never particularly at odds, as often is the case with two Senators of the same political party from the same state.

But their relationship deepened during the 2006 cycle, when McCain aided Kyl’s re-election effort in a year that witnessed big Democratic gains nationwide. Two years later, Kyl worked overtime for
McCain’s presidential bid, a role he has reprised this cycle as Arizona’s senior Senator looks to overcome a challenge in the state’s August primary from conservative former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R).

[IMGCAP(1)]On Monday, Kyl and McCain engaged in a colloquy on the Senate floor on the new immigration enforcement legislation signed into law by Arizona’s governor. McCain in the past sought a middle ground on the issue, championing legislation that included ways for illegal immigrants to earn citizenship, an idea some of his Republican colleagues derided as “amnesty.” But in the colloquy, Kyl repeatedly sought to shore up McCain’s conservative bona fides on the issue, noting that McCain had visited border areas recently and supports patrolling the border with National Guard troops.

“As Sen. McCain said, there is absolutely no doubt that application of the right principles and resources to the border can secure the border,” Kyl said.

It was a prime example of how the two have worked together to reposition McCain. Minutes after the colloquy concluded, McCain during a brief interview described his relationship with his Grand Canyon State colleague as “wonderful.”

“We’ve always had a close relationship,” McCain said. “He’s always been helpful to me; he’s always been — every election I’ve been in.”

As the No. 2 Senate Republican, Kyl is naturally active in support of GOP candidates. This past weekend he was in New Hampshire to back former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte (R), who is running to replace retiring Sen. Judd Gregg (R). But Kyl’s presence on the stump for McCain has been ubiquitous, with Arizona’s junior Senator fulfilling the roles of public surrogate and quiet strategist.

Perhaps Kyl’s most important duty has been to serve as ambassador to Arizona’s conservative voters, whose support is crucial if McCain is to win the Aug. 24 primary. Kyl’s effort to solidify McCain’s relationship with these voters is similar to what then-Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) did for Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) in 2002, when Specter was still a Republican and fighting for his life in the GOP primary.

“It seems any time John McCain feels vulnerable, he tacks right and has Jon Kyl at the helm,” one Arizona-based Republican consultant said, adding: “McCain has always been the show horse, and Kyl the workhorse. But put them together and they can get most anything they want, and I think they both know this.”

McCain’s legislative record is marked with breaks from Republican orthodoxy on key issues, including campaign finance reform, immigration and opposition to the tax cuts passed during the administration of George W. Bush. Hayworth, particularly because of his strong opposition to illegal immigration, is perceived as more conservative. Kyl, both publicly and behind the scenes with the GOP establishment, has fought for McCain.

Recently, Kyl and McCain jointly unveiled a border enforcement plan. And immediately after Hayworth criticized McCain for voting against the Bush tax cuts, the two Senators jointly announced their opposition to a proposed statewide sales tax increase. Kyl has recorded a radio spot for McCain. Meanwhile, Kyl fundraiser Corinne Lovas is now handling McCain’s Arizona fundraising.

On Capitol Hill, Kyl and McCain communicate frequently. Although their styles are different, Republican sources that follow the two Senators describe them as having a sincere appreciation and admiration for one another.

Kyl and McCain have approached as a team their skepticism of the newly signed Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia. In fact, national security has been one of the issues over which the two have bonded. McCain often takes his cues from Kyl — an attorney by trade — on judicial issues and Supreme Court nominees, while Kyl similarly looks to McCain for guidance on matters where he is strong.

That respect and ability to collaborate is evident in how the two Senators discuss their relationship. Kyl is doing his best to ensure the professional part of the relationship can continue.

“It’s hard for folks back home to really understand how a national leader like John McCain can influence events here in Washington,” Kyl said. “He can. As you know, he does. And for me to help them understand how he does that is helpful to him.”