By an overwhelming 2-1 margin, Republican Senators voted Thursday to install Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) as their next Conference chairman — an outcome that was widely predicted but far from certain heading into the secret ballot vote.
Alexander bested Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) by a vote of 31-16 to take over the No. 3 Republican leadership job now held by Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), who was elected by his colleagues Thursday to take over the Minority Whip position of retiring Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.). Lott forced the unusual mid-session leadership elections when he announced earlier this month his plans to resign his Senate seat by the end of the year.
Alexander and Burr had been jockeying for support for Kyl’s job for more than a week, with Alexander leading the vote counting early and up until the tallies were counted. The race had seemed to narrow late Wednesday, but ultimately Alexander — touting his ability to appeal to Republicans and independents — won out among GOP Senators.
The victory came with pretty big stakes for Alexander since the Tennessee Republican suffered a stunning loss to Lott for the Whip job just a year ago. Alexander also was seen as the frontrunner in that race, but ultimately fell to the one-time Majority Leader Lott by just one vote.
In remarks after Thursday’s election, Alexander declined to speculate as to why he won the Conference chairmanship so handily against Burr, saying that his support “seemed to be spread pretty broadly.” Alexander said in running for the post, he simply tried to make the case that he had the experience and the vision to try to broaden the GOP appeal at a critical time for the now minority party.
That selling point also was an argument voiced by some Senators to vote against Alexander, saying they feared he would be apt to negotiating with Democrats at the expense of Republican principles and ideals. Alexander insisted that he can be a strong Republican advocate and reach across the aisle at the same time, and believes that is possible even in the party-faithful leadership hierarchy.
“I’ll still have independent views but perhaps I’ll be able to advance them more effectively in different places,” Alexander argued.
Alexander also said he didn’t know whether Senators supported him because they felt guilty over his narrow loss to Lott last year, but he did acknowledge he “did not expect to be in leadership” after that defeat.
“This was a new twist in my life that I didn’t expect,” he said.
Alexander secured his strongest support from Republican moderates and the party’s veteran old bulls, while Burr was the favorite among the junior GOP Senators and fiscal conservatives who were angling for a fresh young face for the aging Conference. Burr even had the support of Lott — whom many believe encouraged Burr to run for the job in the first place — but the outgoing Whip couldn’t vote in the contest and could do little to advance his numbers in the end.
Burr said after the vote that he had hoped his younger perspective on how to woo independent voters would sway his colleagues. Despite the outcome, however, Burr added that he doesn’t feel the Conference will be at a disadvantage with Alexander at the helm.
“I never had a desire to serve in leadership, whether I was in the House or the Senate. I saw this as a sign of how this Conference and this Republican minority could move forward with a new generation of voters in America,” Burr said. “That is something that Lamar is focused on as well, so I don’t feel for a minute that we’ve missed anything other than possibly the generational face.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a Burr ally, called both candidates “great choices” but he felt Burr would have brought new energy to the party at a time when it desperately needs a boost. Graham said he still believes Burr’s “stock is on the rise in the Republican Conference.”
Beyond the No. 3 job, Senators tapped Kyl to fill Lott’s place as Whip — difficult shoes to fill, both Democrats and Republicans agreed. Lott was not only viewed as a masterful vote counter, but also as a successful deal maker, both within his own party and across the aisle.
Kyl hasn’t been known as the most compromising of Senators throughout his tenure, and Thursday said he “can’t be a patsy” and must continue to represent Republican points of view. But, Kyl said he will “approach [the Whip job] with an open mind” and work to soften the partisanship that has bedeviled the chamber in recent years.
Asked whether he believed he could easily follow Lott’s lead, Kyl said: “It’s impossible to do. Trent Lott is the quintessential Whip. I don’t know of anyone who has done a better job. They threw the mold away when they made Trent Lott Whip.”
Emily Pierce contributed to this report.