Sen. Jon Kyl (R., Ariz.), the Republican whip, is leaving the Senate. Last week, Senator Kyl formally announced that when his term expires on Jan. 3, 2013, he’s out the door. But not a day sooner. And while he may not be able to quash completely the countless and inevitable ruminations on his “tenure” or “legacy” as a public servant, there’s one thing Kyl wants to make clear: He’s not done yet.
“First of all, I’m not retiring,” Kyl tells (nay, scolds) National Review Online in an interview, “We’ve still got 20-plus months of real hard charging left to go.”
Which is great news for the GOP and the conservative movement, because if the tremendous outpouring of support in the wake of Kyl’s announcement is any indication, he will be dearly missed. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) called Kyl his “right hand” and said a U.S. Senate without him would be “a big loss for the country.”
“Year in and year out, Jon Kyl has been everyone’s nominee for Most Valuable Player in the United States Senate,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.). “We will miss his leadership.” Regarding Kyl’s noted expertise on foreign policy, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I., Conn.) called him “a great guardian of America’s security and freedom.”
A senior GOP Senate aide stressed how fortunate Republicans are to have Kyl on their team, if only for two more years. “He’s just an incredibly intelligent guy,” the aide says, “always keyed in to the details of whatever policy the Senate would be working on at any given time, always with a very comfortable grasp of even the most complex issues.”
Club for Growth spokesman Mike Connolly praised Kyl for being a “strong conservative voice” in the Senate, when all too often such a voice was lacking. “He’s been a real leader for a long time on issues that others just weren’t willing or expert enough to lead on,” Connolly says. “He’s always fighting the good fight.”
For Kyl, a three-term senator (and before that, a four-term congressman), the barrage of friendly phone calls, kind words and warms wishes in the last several days has been a bit overwhelming. “It’s like being able to hear your eulogy without having to die,” he says.
Though Kyl’s announcement did not come as a surprise to many, he remains quiet about the reasons behind his decision. “There’s a time for everything,” he says. “And I’ve concluded that it’s the right time to complete my public service.” His health is good, and he’s “fairly confident” he’d be reelected if he ran, but Kyl explains that the decision was a long time in the making. Soon after winning a third Senate term in 2006, he determined it would be his last, and after reevaluating that decision following the 2010 midterms, he realized that “nothing had changed.”
Fortunately, conservatives need not fret too much over Kyl’s departure, because, while he may be leaving Capitol Hill, he insists he isn’t straying too far from the scene. He plans to remain active in politics and policy, helping his colleagues to campaign and fundraise. “Only now, I won’t have my own [campaign] to worry about,” he says.
But Kyl prefers not to talk about what happens next — not when the country is facing “significant challenges” that will need to be confronted at some point during his final term. Asked about what he hopes to accomplish in that time, Kyl has a ready list of tasks. First and foremost, he wants to work with the Senate Finance Committee to address entitlement reform and institute a “real, pro-growth tax policy.” He’ll also work closely with fellow Arizonan Sen. John McCain to secure the U.S.-Mexico border and combat further illegal immigration. Formidable goals, to be sure. “It might be easier to do now that I’m not seeking reelection,” he says.
Nor does he want to discuss his past accomplishments, which are sure to be looked upon collectively as an extraordinary legacy of public service. Instead, with nearly 24 years under his belt, he’s only thinking about the next 22 months. “I think I’d prefer to have those questions [about his legacy] answered at the end of my term,” he says. “I’m at my most effective right now, so I hope to be able to do some other things.”
But, he hastens to add, when his legacy is ultimately considered, it won’t be one that can be readily boiled down to a list of concrete accomplishments. “It’s not about bills that I have passed, it’s about the influence I have had,” he says. “I’ll let my colleagues speak to that.” And they certainly have.
Already, Kyl’s announcement has created a wave of speculation about who will replace him, not only as senator from Arizona, but also at the No. 2 post in the Republican leadership. Sens. Alexander and John Cornyn (R., Texas) are interested in succeeding Kyl as GOP whip. A host of names are being discussed as possible candidates for the soon-to-be open Arizona Senate seat, most notably Rep. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.). Kyl thinks Flake is “certain to run” but says he’s not endorsing anyone at this point.
Whoever it is, that candidate will have the unenviable task of filling the substantial void Kyl will leave behind in the Senate. But remember: He’s not going anywhere just yet.
— Andrew Stiles is a 2011 Franklin Fellow.