After the official departure of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas) from the Senate GOP Conference chairman race, the two remaining hopefuls entered a furious pace Tuesday to try to shore up their colleagues’ votes for the job, with Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) appearing to have an early edge over Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.).
Hutchison exited the race Tuesday as expected, arguing she preferred to stay in her leadership job as chairwoman of the Republican Policy Committee rather than try to move up one rung in the hierarchy. Hutchison, who is retiring in 2012 and is likely to run for Texas governor in 2010, deflected suggestions that she walked away because she feared she wouldn’t be able to best Alexander and Burr in a three-way contest.
“I think I could have won had I decided to really go for it,” Hutchison said.
It was unclear how many votes Hutchison already had attracted, but at least during Tuesday’s jockeying Alexander appeared to be currying favor with a solid share of the Senate’s old bulls as well as its moderates. For his part, Burr’s foundation is firmly planted with conserva- tives and junior Senators, specifically his freshman class of 2004.
“Judging by the atmosphere it just feels like Alexander has an advantage,” said a senior Republican source. “Clearly, the situation is fluid, but the trend seems to be for Lamar.”
Several Republicans suggested that about a dozen Senators are still undecided in the race, a number both Burr and Alexander were hoping to change quickly by holding a series of one-on-one meetings and engaging in phone conversations with their fellow GOP lawmakers. Senators will convene Thursday morning for the secret ballot vote, a type of contest that has often been unpredictable.
Indeed, Alexander has walked into a leadership race believing he had the advantage before, but ended up on the losing end when he squared off a year ago against Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.) for the post of Minority Whip. In that case, Alexander was said to have had a cushion of two or three votes, but ended up falling to the veteran Lott by one ballot.
With that in mind, Alexander hedged his chances Tuesday, saying that while he feels confident in his early count, “having had some experience in this, I’m not going to make any predictions.”
Burr was far more elusive than Alexander Tuesday, appearing to spend the bulk of his time away from the halls of the Capitol and in meetings with his colleagues. His supporters, however, were equally confident in their candidate and suggested the outcome would be razor-thin.
“I think it’s a close race,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), who has helped Burr corral votes. “He’s one of the best politicians in the Senate. People who have experience with him know that. The problem is some people in the Senate don’t know that.”
To be sure, leadership races are difficult to handicap, and in this case the only certainty on Thursday morning is that Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.) will ascend unopposed to take the Minority Whip slot now held by Lott. Lott announced last week that he would resign his Senate seat by the end of the year — a move that prompted the unusual set of mid-session leadership contests.
While several Senators gave clues as to their early alliances on Tuesday, most said they would keep their positions publicly under wraps.
Sen. John Thune (S.D.), Chief Deputy Whip under Lott, said Republicans “have a couple of good candidates” from which to choose in the Conference election. Asked about his selection, Thune demurred, saying: “I’m not probably ready to discuss that. I’m having conversations with both folks.”
Sen. Mel Martinez (Fla.) offered a similar response: “They’re both new faces. … I supported Lamar for whip, but I just met with him this morning. And I’m talking to Mr. Burr as well. They’re both good friends, which makes it hard.”
“It’s going to be close,” said Sen. John Ensign (Nev.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Alexander’s main sales pitch is that as Conference chairman — charged with GOP Senate messaging — he would craft a communications strategy that would address issues that appeal to all elements of the party as well as key independent voters. “Republican voters in Senate races make up about one-third of the vote,” Alexander said. “Last time I checked, we need 51 percent. So, we need to talk about other issues.”
That pitch could both help and hurt his campaign, since Alexander is viewed as sometimes too willing to craft bipartisan deals on issues such as the war in Iraq. Some Senators have privately suggested that Burr is more of a conservative firebrand, who would better articulate a conservative Republican message. Yet others said a more moderate voice for the party may make sense at a time when the Senate is stymied by gridlock and facing tough political times.
“One of the things that I had expressed to Sen. Alexander, and I do appreciate his leadership style, I always have, [is his] reaching out,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), who currently is undecided. “In this body, it’s incumbent upon us to reach out to our colleagues on the other side.”
Private vote counts are hard to gauge, but as of Tuesday night, several Senate GOP sources suggested Alexander may have as many as 20 backers, including the public commitments of Sens. Bob Corker (Tenn.), Norm Coleman (Minn.) and Bob Bennett (Utah), who is notably Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (Ky.) closest ally. Burr’s allies were disinclined to talk numbers, but Burr has several public backers in his camp, including Coburn, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) and fellow North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole.
One advantage for Burr that shouldn’t be discounted is the quiet support of Lott, who has been rumored to have made calls and helped whip votes on his behalf. Lott is believed to have given Burr notice that he planned to resign from the Senate, allowing Burr some lead time in trying to gather support.
Chambliss, Burr’s closest Senate ally, said he couldn’t predict his colleague’s chances come Thursday, saying, “I don’t know what the count is out there.” But Chambliss warned against underestimating Burr, whom he called a “smart conservative,” a “good political strategist,” and someone “who would be an excellent spokesman for the Conference.”
Emily Pierce contributed to this report.