Who will succeed Sen. Mitch McConnell as GOP leader?


Moves to replace Sen. Mitch McConnell as Senate GOP leader are underway, as lawmakers prepare for a campaign slated for post-November resolution.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., leaves a Republican luncheon Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024 at the Capitol in Washington, after announcing that he will step down as Senate Republican leader in November. The 82-year-old Kentucky lawmaker is the longest-serving Senate leader in history. He’s maintained his power in the face of dramatic changes in the Republican Party. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)(AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

The race to succeed Sen. Mitch McConnell as the Republican leader in the U.S. Senate is off to a fast start, with powerful GOP lawmakers laying the groundwork for a unique campaign that won’t be decided until after the November election.

McConnell is the longest-serving Senate leader in history and has led Senate Republicans since 2007 when he first became Senate Minority Leader. He became Majority Leader in 2015 and served in that position for six years.

He plans to step down as his party’s Senate leader after the election but still intends to serve out his term, which ends in 2027.

The presidential election will have a major impact on who leads the GOP in the upper chamber, especially if former President Donald Trump is reelected.

While McConnell helped Trump get three Supreme Court nominees confirmed, the two political leaders have had a frosty relationship. Trump has called McConnell “Old Crow.”

The former president began to publicly criticize McConnell after he declined to back Trump’s claims the 2020 presidential election was stolen and his supporters broke into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, during a joint congressional session to certify the Electoral College results.

In recent years, the Senate Republican Conference started to change considerably, with Trump supporters becoming more openly critical of McConnell.

“I have many faults. Misunderstanding politics is not one of them,” McConnell said this week on the Senate floor, alluding to the shift in the political winds.

McConnell, 82, came to the Senate in 1985 when Ronald Reagan was president, and the Cold War was still underway with what was then the Soviet Union.

He has been a vocal supporter of providing more aid to Ukraine in its war with Russia, while many in the GOP have drifted toward isolationism, with calls to focus on securing the U.S. southern border.

The Three Johns

Political handicappers have begun with a focus on the “Three Johns” as top contenders to replace McConnell as the party’s Senate leader.

They are Sen. John Barrasso, R-WY; Sen. John Cornyn, R-TX; and Senate Minority Whip John Thune of South Dakota.

Cornyn was the first to announce he’s actively seeking to succeed McConnell.

“I believe the Senate is broken — that is not news to anyone. The good news is that it can be fixed, and I intend to play a major role in fixing it,” he said in a statement.

Cornyn, 72, has served in the Senate for more than two decades and previously was the GOP minority whip. He said he spoke with Trump this week about his decision.

Thune has at times been willing to criticize Trump more than other Republicans, but he has also endorsed the former president for the GOP nomination. The South Dakota lawmaker is well-respected and has worked closely with McConnell.

Thune, 63, has risen steadily through the GOP leadership and previously served as the chair of the Senate Republican Conference. Barrasso, 71, is the current chair of the conference and has been the most publicly supportive of Trump, compared to Thune and Cornyn.

He was among the first to endorse Trump for the 2024 presidential election.

Thune and Barrasso have not yet formally announced they will seek the GOP leadership position, though Thune’s office has acknowledged he’s made calls to other lawmakers to sound them out.

The Trump Factor

Former President Trump has already weighed in on the race, though he hasn’t firmly endorsed anyone.

This week he suggested that Sen. Steve Daines, R-MT, seek to become the Senate’s Republican leader.

Daines heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), which is the campaign arm for the GOP Senate. Daines has been working with Trump to find the best Republican candidates, in an effort to help the GOP regain control of the upper chamber.

McConnell openly questioned the quality of several GOP candidates in the most recent election, suggesting that helped Democrats maintain the majority.

Daines has sought to find candidates who cannot only win a Republican primary but win a general election.

The Montana lawmaker told Politico he thanked Trump for his support this week, but also told the former president he’s focused on retaking the Senate.

While Trump has a firm hold on many lawmakers in the House, his ultimate endorsement may have less impact in the Senate.

Senators pride themselves on being more independent and only need to run for reelection every six years, as opposed to every two years in the House.

Also, they will vote in a secret ballot for McConnell’s successor.

McConnell was previously challenged for the GOP leadership by Sen. Rick Scott, R-FL, who was easily defeated.

McConnell’s legacy

Whoever replaces McConnell will be hard-pressed to establish the record of political victories he’s racked up over the years.

Democrats are still bitter over McConnell’s decision not to take up President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court, following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

McConnell said that the next nominee could not be considered until the 2016 election was held, even though Scalia died in February of that year. He was eventually replaced by conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was nominated by former President Trump.

But when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in September 2020 ahead of another election, McConnell decided his previous “rule” wasn’t necessary. Ginsburg, who had been appointed by President Bill Clinton, was quickly replaced by conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett after being nominated by Trump.

In addition to helping to get three conservative members confirmed to the Supreme Court, McConnell paved the way to confirm more than 200 conservative federal judges across the country.

McConnell has no regrets about his decision involving Scalia, at one point calling it the “most consequential thing I’ve ever done.”

The GOP political power broker has come a long way from his Senate campaign 40 years ago.

When then-President Reagan visited McConnell’s native Kentucky that year, he called him “Mitch O’ Donnell.”

“The truth is, when I got here, I was just happy if anybody remembered my name,” he said this week.

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