Why Former Sen. Jon Kyl Got Tapped to Guide Brett Kavanaugh
Supreme Court nominees need an experienced ‘sherpa’ to navigate the Senate’s unique ways
He spent 18 years as a senator on the Judiciary Committee, the last six as the Republican whip and No. 2 in leadership. Now his lobbying clients include a group already spending millions to push the federal courts hard right. His big gig on the side is rooting out perceived liberal bias on social media.
If Jon Kyl does not have the ideal background for successfully shepherding a Supreme Court nominee through this Senate, perhaps no one does.
One question is how much any single supporting player — even someone with his depth of experience and breadth of network — can do to influence what’s poised to become the most intense, expensive, consequential and nationally galvanizing confirmation battle in decades.
Part of the answer lies in defining expectations for the “chief sherpa,” the universally adopted but totally informal title for the volunteer job Kyl has signed on to for the next several months. Like the Tibetans who assist climbers up the bewildering and onerous topography of the Himalayas, a confirmation sherpa is supposed to maximize a nominee’s prospects for successfully navigating the confounding and wearisome passage through the Capitol.
Brett Kavanaugh knows one version of the drill, having endured almost three years of senatorial delay and dispute before securing confirmation in 2006 to his current position, as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
But the polarized partisanship of the Senate has intensified substantially in the past dozen years, no more so than in the judicial wars. And fights over Supreme Court seats are far more fierce and multifaceted than struggles for spots on the lower courts.
The judicial demeanor Kavanaugh has developed at the D.C. federal courthouse, and the political acumen he honed before that as a senior White House official, may need to be tweaked for the unique nature of the contentious campaign ahead in the Capitol.
So his memories of earlier courtesy calls in the offices of ambivalent or even hostile senators, and hours parrying questions in the Judiciary Committee, can certainly stand to be refreshed and updated by an experienced guide — someone adept at managing campaigns that eliminate potential pitfalls and capitalize on all opportunities.
Kyl certainly seems to fit the bill, and can also act as advance man and media messenger for a nominee who’s expected to say nothing at all in front of the cameras during his visits with individual senators, and not much that’s headline-worthy at his hearing.
By that point, Kyl will have tried to tap his old information channels at the Capitol to learn about the most provocative and surprising things Kavanaugh’s critics have discovered in his expansive paper trail. And — after coordinating with people in the White House offices of legislative affairs, legal affairs, general counsel and public liaison — he will have arranged for Kavanaugh to be interrogated on all sorts of “gotcha” questions at mock confirmation hearings known as “murder boards.” (The judge will be coached on all manner of protocol for such proceedings, from how to start every answer with the word “senator” to how often to request a visit to the men’s room.)
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This will be the third sherpa assignment for Kyl, 76, a premier Washington rainmaker at the white-shoe law and lobbying firm Covington & Burling since 2013, when his retirement took effect after three terms as a senator from Arizona. He prepared Seattle hotelier Gordon Sondland, confirmed last month as ambassador to the European Union, for his Senate Foreign Relations hearing. And he helped manage the attorney general confirmation of Jeff Sessions, his longtime colleague on the GOP side of the Judiciary panel.
Kyl is part of a lengthening roster of prominent former GOP senators who have taken the Supreme Court lead sherpa role. A few months after losing re-election in New Hampshire, Kelly Ayotte escorted Neil Gorsuch on visits with more than 70 senators before his confirmation last year. Indiana’s Dan Coats, now director of national intelligence, was the top guide for Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Tennessee’s Fred Thompson took on the role for John G. Roberts Jr.
For Kyl, the assignment began Monday night in the East Room, when he took the seat next to Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa just before President Donald Trump announced who Kyl’s “client” would be for the next several months. He was at Kavanaugh’s side a few hours later (along with Vice President Mike Pence) when the newly minted nominee arrived at the Capitol on Tuesday for his first choreographed Senate visit, with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
By that time, one of Kyl’s lobbying clients, the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, had unveiled a 30-second TV spot touting Kavanaugh’s biography and a $1.4 million initial advertising buy in the home states of four centrist Democrats seen as potential votes for confirmation: Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Doug Jones of Alabama.
The group had spent almost 10 times as much to lobby for Gorsuch’s confirmation, including $215,000 to Covington & Burling when Kyl was assigned to work the Senate corridors on the network’s behalf.
In May, he was hired to pursue another cause dear to the right — exposing signs of left-leaning political bias at influential media organizations. Weeks after founder Mark Zuckerberg testified before an often hostile GOP Congress, Facebook brought Kyl aboard as an adviser to examine claims that the social media behemoth discriminates against the right.
The son also rises
Kyl has been studying the Hill’s evolving culture since he was a teenager, because his father John H. Kyl spent more than a decade starting in 1959 as a Republican congressman from Iowa.
But the younger Kyl moved to Arizona and decided to make his life there, practicing law in Phoenix and running the city’s Chamber of Commerce before winning an open House seat in 1986. He won an open Senate seat eight years later.
By the end of his Senate run, Kyl was regarded as a brainy player on a broad array of issues — from foreign policy and weapons systems to taxes and immigration — whose persuasiveness behind closed doors could shape a consensus position within an ideologically factionalized caucus. In public, meanwhile, his lawyerly focus on policy and an ability to avoid making controversial statements got him tapped as the leadership’s regular spokesman on cable news and Sunday talk shows.
“I have made an effort not to be partisan in an in-your-face sense,” he once said. “Ordinarily, I don’t talk about Republicans and Democrats. I talk about ideas.”
During his tenure, five Supreme Court nominations came to the Hill. He voted against both of President Barack Obama’s picks, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, and before that his open ambivalence helped doom Harriet Miers, the George W. Bush choice who withdrew after too many conservatives damned her with the faintest praise.
And he once led conservative opposition to an appeals court candidate championed by several influential Senate GOP colleagues, including fellow Republican leader Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, on the grounds the nominee had expressed a willingness to consider foreign laws, not just the U.S. Constitution, in deciding cases.