Sen. Bennett's loss means gap must be filled in Sen. McConnell's trusted team

Sen. Robert Bennett’s loss in Utah’s Republican primary Saturday will have a significant impact on Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

McConnell (Ky.) will lose one of his closest friends in the Senate and see his leadership team change as a result of Bennett’s elimination from the Utah ballot.

Colleagues and aides describe McConnell and Bennett, who served for years together on the Senate Appropriations Committee, as loyal friends.

Bennett is respected in the upper chamber for his financial expertise, his persuasive level-headedness and his lack of a personal political agenda.

Bennett has served for years as one of two unelected counsels to the Senate Republican leadership. He will now retire from Congress at the end of the year, despite making a plea to Utah Republicans for another six-year term.

Bennett usually seconded McConnell’s opinion in Republican leadership meetings and was often dispatched to cajole balky Republican senators into taking tough votes, said current and former Senate GOP aides.

“Bennett’s a voice generally in agreement with McConnell,” said a senior GOP aide. “He’s very smart guy and he’s balanced. He doesn’t come to the table with some big personally ambitious political agenda.”

These qualities have helped McConnell’s views prevail in meetings.

“The leadership table doesn’t tend to debate things,” said the aide. “It’s usually termed, ‘We could go this route or a slightly different route.’”

The other counsel, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), is also retiring from the Senate at the end of 2010, leaving McConnell without two of his most trusted advisers next year.

Their departures will deprive the leadership of much of its institutional knowledge. Apart from McConnell, who was elected in 1984, and Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), who won his Senate seat in 1994, the rest of the elected Republican leadership team joined the chamber in the past decade.

McConnell recently appointed Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) as the third counsel to the leadership, a move that some Republican insiders interpreted as an effort to create continuity with the past.

She served as vice-chairman of the Senate Republican Conference from 2001 to 2007 and chairman of the Republican Policy Committee from 2007 to 2009.

She left leadership to focus on an unsuccessful run for governor. Although she initially planned to retire from the Senate this year, she has decided to serve out the rest of her term, through 2012.

Current and former GOP aides describe Hutchison — whom they refer to by her initials, KBH — as hard-working and competent.

“If you give her an issue,” said a senior GOP aide, “you can rely on her to keep it under control.”

Rich Galen, a former senior adviser to Hutchison, said “she’s not one of those people that thinks she has to be an expert in 700 things.”

“She’s an expert in the things that’s she’s expert in and she demands the staff work as hard as she does,” he said. “That’s a high bar to cross because she works very, very hard.”

GOP aides see Hutchison as filling in for Bennett and Gregg in several respects. She is viewed as a policy expert but also seen as a serious and level-headed judge. She also has a strong, if unshowy, presence that is persuasive to colleagues.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the only other woman on the Republican leadership team, is said to have a bright future but GOP insiders say her opinions do not yet have the same veteran weight as Hutchison’s.

Hutchison, like Bennett and Gregg, is also seen as leaning a little more to the center of the Senate Republican ideological spectrum — which is not to say they aren’t solid conservatives. But as a member of the Appropriations Committee, like Bennett and Gregg, she is unlikely to argue for a yearlong moratorium on earmarks.

Hutchison has an 89.8 lifetime rating by the American Conservative Union, almost the same as McConnell’s 89.7 rating.

Kyl, the Senate Republican Whip, by comparison, has a 96.8 conservative rating, closer to the 98.6 rating of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who has become a leader of Tea Party conservatives.

Some aides argue that Hutchison’s greatest contribution will be her ability to discuss policy and politics from a women’s perspective. In recent elections, Democrats have tended to perform better with women voters.

“She brings a different view based upon her gender,” said a former GOP aide. “Sometimes people miss things. Men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Men miss things that are like, ‘duh,' to women.”

Hutchison also has a track record of building bipartisan relationships. She regularly has dinner with the women of the Senate.

But Hutchison is not seen as easily filling Bennett’s role as an emissary to help corral Republican votes on tough issues.

“Bennett can talk to people and change their mind. I don’t really see her as the person to dispatch to get them to change their mind,” a former GOP aide said.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), the genial chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, is seen as well-suited to that type of outreach.

One aide said Alexander often serves as “ambassador” to the rest of the conference. Along with Bennett, he is one of McConnell’s closest friends and allies in the Senate.

Alexander’s role could grow after Bennett and Gregg depart.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) is also said to have become a closer friend to McConnell since taking over the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Cornyn, no doubt, will have more clout in the conference if Republicans pick up a handful of seats this fall, as is expected.

“I think they’ve grown closer,” said a GOP aide. “Part of it is they are both up to their necks in campaign finance issues and McConnell is a political junkie. They’ve bonded.”

Kyl has built his reputation as master of policy details — he once told a reporter that he doesn’t like to answer questions about politics, only policy.

McConnell is likely to rely more heavily on Kyl for policy expertise, especially on tax questions after the retirement of Bennett and Gregg.

McConnell may also appoint another lawmaker to serve as counsel.

The leader appointed Murkowski as counsel before she was elected as vice-chairman of the conference.

“It is really the leader’s decision,” said Murkowski. “When I was invited on, it was not something I sought at all. The leader said, ‘I’d like your counsel at the meetings, I’d like to include you as part of the group.'”