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Any race to replace Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell would likely center on three veteran senators who have largely similar profiles and dispositions and who have each built alliances as part of the GOP leadership team.
Sens. John Thune (R.-S.D.), the whip and second-in-command; John Cornyn (R.-Texas), a prolific fundraiser and former whip, and John Barrasso (R.-Wyo.), the party’s third-ranking senator, are seen as the most likely successors if the 81-year-old McConnell has to step aside amid increasingly public health concerns. The “three Johns,” as they’re sometimes called, are the top names in what could be the first seriously contested race for GOP leader in close to three decades — a battle that would anoint a new national voice for the party.
It’s a high-stakes race that would come down to the vote of 50 or so individual senators.
“It’s all very, very personal,” said Tom Daschle, the former Democratic Senate Majority Leader from South Dakota, who lost his seat to Thune. “The only way you run is you try to persuade one at a time members to vote for you.”
It remains uncertain when any vote would happen. But speculation has intensified after McConnell, the cold-eyed tactician who has set the record as the longest-serving Senate leader, paused for 30 seconds Wednesday when taking questions from reporters, the second time he has frozen publicly since late July. The incidents came after he was out of the Senate for several weeks this spring following a fall.
McConnell has said little publicly about his health and has not broached the subject of stepping down as GOP leader, a post he has held since 2007. Senators and GOP aides are reluctant to publicly discuss his future, or any race to succeed him. He isn’t up for re-election until 2026 and Senate leaders are selected the start of each two-year Congress.
On the surface, there’s relatively little to distinguish the trio of potential successors. All hail from red states. Thune is 62, Cornyn and Barrasso 71. They each came to the Senate during the George W. Bush administration. They all hold or have held key leadership posts. They have similar temperaments and are generally well-liked within the conference. And for a party that has changed dramatically in the era of Donald Trump, they all represent throwbacks to an earlier era of Republicanism.
Their differences show up most sharply when it comes to strategic and legislative nuances, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former Senate Republican aides and insiders, some of whom spoke anonymously to discuss private and speculative talks.
Cornyn and Thune, who have each held the number two slot in the conference, are the logical front-runners, according to party insiders. Thune got a short run as the GOP frontman earlier this year when McConnell was recovering from a fall and would do so again if the Kentuckian is again forced to the sidelines. Some Senate aides argued that gives him a head start.
“If you’re in the position of the whip, that’s the pole position,” said a former Thune aide. “You’re doing more conversations, more transactional conversations than anybody else, and you’ve got your finger on the pulse more than anybody else. It’s your day to day job.”
People on all sides say Cornyn, from the largest, most diverse and politically competitive state of the group, is the more eager deal-maker – but they’re divided on whether that’s a good or bad thing.
To Cornyn’s allies, he’s a conservative who can close deals in a chamber that requires bipartisanship. At McConnell’s request, he negotiated the first legislation in decades to tighten gun laws (Public Law 117-159), passed after a mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and pushed the bill to spark semiconductor manufacturing (Public Law 117-167). Admirers point to Cornyn’s prolific fundraising for fellow Republicans, and Thune critics argue the whip can seem more like a weather vane going along with his conference.
Others flip the same attributes on their heads. They say Cornyn has gotten too far afield at times, especially on guns, and handed wins to the Biden administration. Thune supporters say he has remained aligned with the conference and built trust by honoring the influence of top committee members.
“It used to be that you wanted a leader that could get things done and that meant generally trying to find some common ground with the other side,” Daschle said. “That doesn’t seem to be as much of a priority any longer so I’m not sure how much of a consensus builder is what members are looking for.”
Cornyn allies argued that deals such as the one on guns, while unpopular with some Republicans, defuse difficult political situations confronting vulnerable senators and that his record of helping members will outweigh individual policy disagreements. People close to Cornyn note the two-time chair of the GOP Senate political arm has raised more campaign money in the past 10 years than any Senate Republican, bar McConnell.
“They’re all very similar, so I think it boils down to things at the individual member level: ‘What have you done for me?’” said a Cornyn ally and former senior aide, who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive maneuvering. Is a lawmaker going to object to Cornyn’s compromises, the aide asked. “Or are they going to say, ‘John Cornyn helped me on all my other legislative priorities and he raised me a lot of money?’”
Barrasso is seen as the dark horse, but his supporters argue he’s the most reliably conservative of the group, and most aligned with Trump, the GOP’s leading figure and declared presidential candidate for 2024. Like Trump, he opposed recent bipartisan deals to lift the debt ceiling (Public Law No. 118-5) and fund infrastructure (Public Law No. 117-58), as well as the guns and semiconductor deals Cornyn negotiated.
He leads the GOP’s messaging team and therefore also has regular contact with the all parts of the conference, potentially giving him more access to the party’s right wing.
Daschle and others said that a Senate leadership race is the most idiosyncratic of contests, given the small pool of powerful people voting by secret ballot. The outcome could come down not to big-picture ideological divides or debates over the party’s direction, or even lobbying influence, but personal connections.
And with such a small electorate, just a few senators can make the difference. Daschle noted that he won his first leadership race by a single vote.
It’s unclear at this early stage if another surprise contender, or a younger, more Trump-aligned candidate might challenge the old guard Republicans.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) mounted a long-shot challenge to McConnell at the start of this Congress and had support from hard-right senators. He has not at this point signaled another run.
A Trump influence?
Potentially looming over the race is Trump.
If an opening happens while Trump is formally leading the party as its presidential nominee, some insiders think it could influence the broader political atmosphere — especially since Trump loves to throw his weight into high-profile issues. If the vote comes after the 2024 presidential race (which would allow McConnell to serve through the current Congress), a Trump victory or defeat might itself send a message about the party’s direction.
“Timing and Trump are a big question,” said Shawn Whitman, a former Barrasso chief of staff. “How much do they get tied to the presidential race?”
Barrasso allies say his conservative record might make him the choice of the younger, more Trump-aligned senators. Others suggested the party’s right wing is unlikely to produce the next leader, but that they could lay out demands that shape the race, potentially including requests for plum committee assignments or promises about amendment votes that would give individual senators more power to shape legislation.
Thune and Cornyn have each been critical of Trump at times. Thune has endorsed one of Trump’s primary rivals, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), and Cornyn questioned Trump’s electability in the face of the former president’s multiple indictments. Barrasso, from the state that gave Trump his largest vote share in 2020, has been more openly comfortable with the former president.
But others argued that as much as Trump has reshaped the GOP, the Senate is the most traditional of institutions and that seniority and internal factors still carry weight.
“The internal politics,” Daschle said, “still favor the institutionalists.”
Zach C. Cohen in Washington also contributed to this story.
To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Tamari at email@example.com