‘Three Johns’ lead race to succeed McConnell 

ThuneJohn CornynJohn BarrassoJohn

The race to succeed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) atop the Senate GOP conference is on.

While a shadow campaign has been going on for years throughout McConnell’s record-setting tenure as leader, jockeying by potential successors has begun in earnest and is set to burst into the open. 

Republicans, for the most part, are looking at the trio of Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.), John Cornyn (R-Texas) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) as the leading contenders to take over for the longtime Republican leader, with a possible conservative challenger mixed in.

With almost nine months of runway for auditions and maneuvering, Senate Republicans are preparing for an open leadership election the conference hasn’t seen in nearly two decades. 

“This is going to be a roller coaster ride,” Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) said.

All three top contenders were deferential to McConnell after his announcement Wednesday caused shock waves across Capitol Hill. But all signs point to them looking toward a run for the top spot. 

Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, declined to say definitively that he is running, but added he would have more to say in short order. 

“He leaves really big shoes to fill. We’ll give you more insight into what we’re thinking here in the near future,” Thune said. 

Thune’s allies are already preparing for him to take the plunge. Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.), a member of Thune’s whip team, told reporters that he is “pretty sure he is going to run.” 

“I think it’s pretty clear he’s going to run,” Mullin said, arguing Thune is the right person for the job. “[He brings] experience. He brings in stability. He’s bringing proven leadership.”

Mullin added that he thought Thune proved his mettle last year when McConnell was absent from the Senate for more than a month after suffering a concussion and broken rib. 

“You didn’t see Thune trying to take advantage of that,” he said. “You saw Thune being very cautious, being a good leader. He was very methodical on moving forward and helped navigate some really difficult situations at the time.” 

Cornyn was more clear that he is looking ahead to a bid to replace McConnell. He was the No. 2 Senate Republican from 2013 to 2019, before he was term-limited from the post, and has remained a key McConnell ally. 

“Today is about Mitch McConnell,” Cornyn told reporters. “But I’ve made no secret of my intentions.” 

Both are already fast in the wake of the Kentucky Republican’s announcement. One Senate Republican told The Hill that they are both “burning” up the phones of members. 

“I don’t think you can let things like this lie,” a second Senate Republican said. “You’ve got to jump on them.”

Barrasso largely declined to wade into the leadership waters on Wednesday, saying he is focused on winning back the White House and the Senate majority. 

“I’m going to talk to members of the conference, hear what they have to say, listen to them in terms of what direction that they want to take with the conference,” said Barrasso, the earliest of the three to endorse former President Trump. 

Some in Senate GOP circles have noted Barrasso would have an easy landing place if he were to falter in his run, as he is the only one of the three who would be able to serve as Republican whip. Thune’s third term in the post ends at the end of the year, while Cornyn was Thune’s predecessor.

Whoever takes over as leader will be filling a major void atop the conference. McConnell has held the reins since 2007, establishing him as the longest serving party leader in Senate history. 

But Republicans are expressing confidence in whoever the chosen replacement is.

“All three have more than adequate talent and experience to do the job,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said. “The gift Mitch has given us is the runway to actually really contemplate it and have them audition for it, do the performance evaluations thoroughly, ask the questions and get the right answers.” 

McConnell has been in the position so long, in fact, that precious few in the conference have experienced an open Senate leadership fight. Only eight sitting Senate Republicans were in office when McConnell ascended to replace then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). 

“It’s uncharted for a lot of folks,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has only known the Senate GOP under McConnell’s stewardship. “There will be time to figure all that out.” 

There are wild cards at play in the fight to replace McConnell. One of them is Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who ran and lost to the Kentucky Republican in November 2022 and did not rule out a potential second bite at the apple. Scott maintained that he is focused on his reelection bid. 

“I thought we should have change in leadership,” Scott said when asked about a second leadership bid. “I think there’s a better way to run the Senate, so we’ll see what happens in the future.”

McConnell defeated Scott at the time, 37-10. 

Another potential wild card is Trump, the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination. 

Leadership elections usually take place in November, shortly after the general elections, meaning that he could have already booked a second term in the White House and gained increased influence over the Senate GOP leader.

While Republicans are largely hesitant to air grievances about the current leadership team, one complaint from some circles stems from the lack of a relationship McConnell has with Trump. The two have been estranged ever since the latter’s 2020 election loss. Some Trump supporters believe his successor must be prepared to work with the ex-president if he wins in November. 

“It’s important. President Trump’s going to be our Republican nominee. We know this,” Mullin said, noting that the “Three Johns” have all thrown their weight behind the former president. 

However, others believe this will be a Senate decision, and a Senate decision only. 

“As far as I know, he doesn’t have a vote,” Cramer said. “So, not much of [a role] … And he shouldn’t.”

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