Alabama GOP representative Jo Bonner announced in May that he was resigning to take a vice-chancellor’s job at the University of Alabama System in Tuscaloosa. Among the first to announce interest in his seat was Quin Hillyer, a senior editor at The American Spectator magazine and past contributor to National Review.
Hillyer spoke to NRO’s Jim Geraghty Friday.
Jim GERAGHTY: Quin, here’s the question that has nagged at me since the moment I heard you were running: Why on earth would anyone want to give up the glamorous and lucrative life of blogging and writing for conservative magazines to run for Congress?
QUIN HILLYER: So I can actually be in a position to start implementing the things I’ve been writing about for all these many years. It’s that simple.
GERAGHTY: Jo Bonner’s announcement that he was departing from Congress to take a position at the University of Alabama obviously was the trigger for this, but was this something you had been thinking about for a lot of years?
HILLYER: For years and years I had thought, “I could do a good job in Congress; wouldn’t it be nice if everything fell into place for me to be able to do it?” But I never really thought it would happen. And I certainly didn’t design a career to make it happen. For that matter, I certainly didn’t write in ways that would make it easy. I have played it straight and written things here and there that might tick off particular people or constituencies. It’s not like I really thought it would happen. But my wife and I had talked about it and said that if everything fell into place, it might be something we could do.
But I thought Jo Bonner was a lifer. He had been there since 1983 on staff, and then, of course, for eleven years as a congressman. I thought he would stay at least another session and maybe another ten or twelve years. I thought maybe after another couple years of book-writing, maybe when Jo steps down, that might be something I would look at. So I thought about it, but it wasn’t something I thought was imminent or likely.
I found out at two o’clock on a Thursday afternoon that Jo was stepping down, and by 5:20 I was announcing on live TV that I was running. A lot had to happen in that three hours and twenty minutes. Five or six things had to fall into place very quickly — in fact, I was supposed to go to Ireland the next day. If I had traveled for ten days, by the time I got back, there would have been no chance.
Those five or six things happened — I got that sixth thing, a text message at about 5:19, when I was about to go on local television and talk about the race. I had to make a snap decision. I realized that I couldn’t go on as a neutral analyst and talk about the race if it was really looking like I was going to run, because that wouldn’t be honest. So in the course of about a minute, I decided that when the second question came – which would be “Who is running?” – I would have to say, and I did say, on live TV, “I’m about to make a lot of news for y’all, but then I’m going to have to take off my microphone, because I’m going to run and I’m going to win.”
GERAGHTY: Tell us a little bit about Alabama’s first congressional district.
HILLYER: It is a prototypical Reagan-conservative district in the South, with a twist. It has been in Republican hands, I believe, since 1964. I believe it’s the only seat in the South that has been like that. It went for Romney by a little over 61 percent. A Republican is going to win this seat. On the other hand, it has been a seat held by Republicans who have always been very locally or regionally focused rather than big national-policy players. That shows that anybody who runs and hopes to win has to remember that these are constituents that really care about local issues. Now, that doesn’t mean local pork; that means BP [oil spill] relief or issues like the length of the season for red snapper or oil-and-gas development. They really want somebody who is going to fight for regional issues. It’s a Reagan district, but not one that has focused on national policy.
GERAGHTY: Any other local issues under the radar that could prove pivotal in the GOP primary?
HILLYER: I don’t think so, but there is a lot of talk about hurricane insurance, or more specifically, lack of home insurance because insurance companies are afraid of hurricanes. And I’m going to have the best answer on that . . . but you’ll have to stay tuned.
GERAGHTY: What’s your connection to the district? Do you live there full-time?
HILLYER: I do live here full-time – that’s a mistake a lot of people in D.C. make. I moved here in 1998 to write for the Mobile Register, now the Press-Register. I was an editorial writer and columnist there for eight years. I married a Mobile lady who is fourth-generation Mobile, actually going back on both sides. We did move to D.C. for several years, starting in 2006, but we never sold our house. We moved back several years ago and even in the meantime I wrote a lot about Alabama issues for national publications and continued to contribute to the Register.
When I moved back, I became affiliated with the University of Mobile [as writer-in-residence]. I have been making weekly radio appearances for two-plus years, and had a weekly television-analyst spot on the most-watched local news affiliate until I announced my run on it. I wasn’t born and raised here; I’m a New Orleans boy with Mississippi ties, so basically the entire central Gulf Coast is my home.
GERAGHTY: What has been the biggest challenge since you stepped onto the other side of the microphone?
HILLYER: I’ve worked in a lot of campaigns before, both as a volunteer and professionally, all during the 1980s. The biggest surprise is just how different it is to be a candidate than it is to be a campaign worker.
There’s a lot more phoning and e-mailing. The pressures as a candidate rather than as a campaign worker are of a different nature. . . . The personal contacts with potential donors and potential volunteers — it’s a deeper quality.
GERAGHTY: It’s all on you, right? There’s no one to delegate it to. Instead of somebody else being “the product,” you’re the product. And I’ll bet you get a lot more emotionally invested in that, because if they decide they don’t like you, they’re not just rejecting the guy you’re working for, they’re rejecting you.
GERAGHTY: As a writer, when you’re making an argument, you may or may not be trying to appeal to everybody; you’re trying to make your point in a compelling way, and sometimes controversy or shock can be useful. I’m betting that as a candidate, you may not want to go about things that way. Anything you’ve written that now has you thinking, “Oh, that’s going to come back to bite me” or “that’s going to be a headache down the road”?
HILLYER: Yes, and luckily, I know what they are. I tend to write in ways that maybe use very expressive language and then take care to back it up. In context, I have explained the language that I’m using and mitigated misinterpretation, etc. Now people can take the single lines out of context, take away the mitigating explanation, and make things I’ve said look bad. I need to figure out how to show that there was context when obviously critics are not going to want to credit me with the context.
GERAGHTY: I looked through some of your past writings on John Boehner and Eric Cantor. Any thoughts on the potential transition from being an outsider, criticizing leaders, to becoming a colleague of theirs and having to work with them?
HILLYER: Yes. Look, I am a very strong conservative, and I want to move the House and public policy to the right. But I am also an intuitionalist. I don’t want to blow up the House. I worked for a man who was an intuitionalist in Bob Livingston. I have a consistent record of using constructive criticism and not trying to blow up things. Heck, Boehner’s folks know that I have not been his harshest critic. They know that I’m further to the right than he is, but they also know I’m always writing with a view to how to get things done rather than to just throw stones.
GERAGHTY: This is one of those unusual circumstances where we know there will be a special election but we don’t have a primary- or general-election date set yet. Any thoughts on whether you would prefer a shorter or a longer special-election campaign?
HILLYER: I’m comfortable with as short a time as we can get. I’m going to offer something different. I’ve never run for office. I bring by far the most qualifications of combining advocacy of both state and local issues. I think I can impress that upon people very quickly, the sooner the better, because the constituents need to get represented sooner rather than later. Frankly, the less time that the ordinary politicians have to counter my narrative, the better.
GERAGHTY: Any self-imposed term-limit pledges?
HILLYER: I will campaign with an ironclad pledge: a personal six-term limit, with the only exception being if I am, or am about to become, speaker of the house, majority leader, or chairman of the Ways and Means or Appropriations Committees, because it would be devastating to my district not to take those positions. Unless I’m in one of those four positions, it’s an ironclad pledge.
GERAGHTY: Why should a Republican support you over one of the other candidates in the GOP primary?
HILLYER: I’ve talked a lot about local issues, but there has rarely been a chance for somebody of the conservative movement to get into office. There have been people who were supported by the conservative movement, but there hasn’t been anyone who’s been born and bred and part of it for thirty-four years like I have. I was there in 1980 in the convention hall when Ronald Reagan accepted the nomination for president. I was a Reagan political appointee to serve veterans at the Veterans Administration. I was part of the Contract with America and the so-called Gingrich revolution on the Hill. I’ve been writing for national conservative publications for 17 years. This is a chance to get a charter, second-generation member of the conservative movement into office in a way that can do a lot of good. I would really welcome national conservative readers to rally to my side.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.