Forty years after forging a friendship as ambitious legislative aides, Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander is emerging as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s most trusted adviser in the Senate.
Alexander’s close relationship with the Kentucky Republican, and his role as a valued counselor, are nothing new. The Tennessean runs the Senate Republican message operation and is involved in all high-level decisions. In an interview, he cited the opportunity to work more directly with his “good friend” McConnell as a key reason he originally decided to run for a spot in the leadership.
But sources say Alexander’s clout with the Minority Leader increased as he filled a gap created by the absence of Sen. Bob Bennett, a McConnell confidant who spent much of the spring in Utah trying, unsuccessfully, to fight off GOP primary challengers. Alexander’s stock with McConnell could rise even higher next year, given the potential influx of newly elected conservatives and the respect he already commands within that wing of the caucus.
“Several conservative Senators resented Bennett as an appointed leader. Bennett often reversed the outcome of meetings that conservatives thought they had won,” one Republican operative said. “The conservatives like elected leadership that they can discipline. Lamar is much more attentive to the Senators’ needs and, frankly, makes you feel good even when he is cutting you to the quick.”
They Trust Him’
A senior Senate GOP aide confirmed Alexander’s occasional role as McConnell’s leadership-team conduit to the rank-and-file conservatives.
The aide stressed that Alexander has strong relationships with all wings of the minority, including the moderates.
But this source conceded that Alexander’s rapport with the conservatives is useful, particularly given that their ranks are poised to grow in the midterm elections.
“They trust him,” the aide said of Alexander’s relationship with the conservatives.
In fact, Alexander’s solid lines of communication with all factions is why sources expect him to become McConnell’s ambassador to the Conference, measuring Senators’ positions on issues so that the Minority Leader can determine what direction to steer them.
In a brief interview Thursday, Alexander was hesitant to acknowledge that he plays any special role within the Senate Republican hierarchy beyond his duties as Conference chairman.
Alexander said each Senator’s contribution within the leadership team is of complementary and equal value. He noted the seamless, personal and professional chemistry exhibited by a team where personal agendas are secondary to the political and policy goals of the caucus, emphasizing how unique this is in his many years in politics.
When pushed to discuss his relationship with McConnell and his emerging role, Alexander clearly preferred to focus on a friendship that began in 1969.
The 69-year-old Senator, then a legislative aide working for Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), was told by his boss that he ought to get to know a “very smart, young legislative aide” who was working for Sen. Marlow Cook (R-Ky.).
“We’ve been friends ever since then,” Alexander said. “One of the reasons I enjoy being in leadership is a close, personal and working relationship with Mitch, and I think we have a very good team. … We all work easily together; we don’t have the kind of competition that sometimes you’ve seen in leadership teams here in the Senate.”
Alexander said McConnell’s style elevates consensus over dictating and gauges the position of the full Conference before making any decisions.
“We’ve known each other a long time, and I tell him what I think when he asks my advice. And sometimes I tell him what I think when he doesn’t ask my advice,” Alexander said. “He doesn’t always take my advice, but we have a good enough relationship that that strengthens the relationship rather than hurts it. … One reason that I wanted to be in the leadership was to work with Mitch McConnell because I thought I could supplement his leadership. We work easy together, and I like him.”
In addition to the elected Members of the GOP leadership, the group consists of three Senators appointed by McConnell: Bennett, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas) and retiring Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.). Bennett is considered to have the most influence among the group, and his ouster this month in Utah’s GOP primary was viewed as a personal blow to McConnell.
Bennett’s looming departure is one reason McConnell recently tapped Alexander to head the response to Democratic efforts to overhaul the Senate’s rules on filibusters, sources said.
Bennett declined to comment on the relationships between individual members of leadership. But he did give a window into what McConnell looks for in a counselor, while referring to the team overall as open and frank with one another — a group that “works together better than any I have served on” and that is “as compatible as any I have seen.”
“I think he picks people on the basis of what he thinks they can help him understand,” Bennett said. “Each one of us has an area of expertise that he is kind enough to call on.”
Republican aides familiar with Alexander’s style say McConnell trusts him in part because he focuses on doing his job as Conference chairman above all else — and because he does it well. Alexander is also said to be a leader who understands his place in the pecking order. The Tennessee Republican sees his job as that of helping McConnell, but he defers to him once the Minority Leader makes a decision.
Public Relations Success
Alexander is credited within the Conference for much of the public relations success Senate Republicans experienced throughout the past year in the messaging wars with Senate Democrats and President Barack Obama.
GOP operatives praised Alexander’s unique ability to distill complicated issues down to a simple, principled message.
Alexander is also lauded for formulating messages that manage to equally satisfy GOP conservatives, moderates and institutional pragmatists.
Sen. Bob Corker (R), Tennessee’s junior Senator and a longtime friend of Alexander’s, said Alexander and McConnell have a strong relationship and are very much a team.
“He’s one of those guys that listens,” Corker said. “He’s not usually the first to jump up to make a statement. He sort of takes things in and typically has a wonderful way of summarizing what others have said and putting it into context in such a way that people can communicate it and unify around it.”