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The race is on: Here's who could replace Mitch McConnell as Senate Republican leader

WASHINGTON – Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's announcement that he will be stepping down from his leadership post in November surprised many of his GOP colleagues – and kicked off immediate speculation about who would replace him.

There are three senators who have long been considered likely replacements: Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., John Cornyn, R-Texas, and John Barrasso, R-Wyo. But there will likely be others who step forward for a shot at the crown.

The transition comes at a unique moment for Republicans in Congress. The populist wing of the party exemplified by former President Donald Trump has steadily grown, prompting clashes between conservatives and more traditional, moderate Republicans.

Tensions between McConnell and GOP senators have flared repeatedly, leading to a failed attempt at replacing him in 2022. In the last month alone, he has clashed with ultraconservative senators over a bipartisan border security package and additional funding for Ukraine.

McConnell's announcement also comes as Republicans are poised to flip control of the chamber: They only need to gain one seat or the presidency in the 2024 election to take the gavel back from Democrats.

Most GOP senators on Wednesday said they didn't yet know who they'd support. Quipped Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.: "I wouldn't tell you if I did, because then I wouldn't get all those free dinners" from senators campaigning for the spot.

Here's what to know about the likely candidates to serve as the next Senate GOP leader:

Dec. 7, 2023; Washington, D.C., USA -- Senator John Thune (R-SD) at a press conference on Dec. 7, 2023 in Washington, D.C, regarding issues related to border security and President Joe Biden policy.
Dec. 7, 2023; Washington, D.C., USA -- Senator John Thune (R-SD) at a press conference on Dec. 7, 2023 in Washington, D.C, regarding issues related to border security and President Joe Biden policy.

South Dakota Sen. John Thune

Currently the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, Thune serves as the minority whip, responsible for figuring out where GOP lawmakers stand on policy and ensuring they stick together on important votes.

Thune, 63, has been in the Senate since 2005 and was in the House for six years before that. Swarmed by reporters after McConnell announced his decision on the Senate floor Wednesday, Thune said McConnell "leaves really big shoes to fill." Nevertheless, he didn't say whether he would run to replace the Kentucky lawmaker.

He's seen by many as the natural heir, given McConnell has prepared him for the role. But that might work against him as right-wing senators seek a fresh start.

Thune was once an outspoken critic of Trump's role in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and initially supported Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. to be the GOP candidate for president this fall. Trump called for someone to challenge him in his last primary election over the comments.

However, Thune endorsed Trump earlier this week – more than three months after Scott dropped out of the presidential race.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., speaks during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources hearing to examine the federal response to escalating wildfires and to evaluate reforms to land management and wildland firefighter recruitment, Thursday, June 8, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., speaks during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources hearing to examine the federal response to escalating wildfires and to evaluate reforms to land management and wildland firefighter recruitment, Thursday, June 8, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso

Barrasso, 71, is the third-ranking Republican in the Senate as chair of the Republican Conference. He has served in the Senate since 2007, which he joined after serving in the Wyoming Senate and working as an orthopedic doctor.

He has a close relationship with McConnell, but he was one of the first Senate Republicans to endorse Trump's reelection campaign. He has also thrown his support behind more conservative Senate candidates such as Arizona's Kari Lake and Ohio's Bernie Moreno.

Barrasso on Wednesday told reporters there's a more important election in November than the race to replace McConnell: "That's my focus."

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, wished Ketanji Brown Jackson luck at her confirmation hearing before  the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 28.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, wished Ketanji Brown Jackson luck at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 28.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn

Cornyn, 72, does not hold a formal leadership role, though he previously served as GOP whip for six years.

He has been in the Senate since 2002. Beforehand, he was the Texas attorney general and an associate justice to the Texas Supreme Court. He has also led the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP's campaign arm.

Cornyn endorsed Trump in January and has never backed any of the other Republican candidates vying for the 2024 GOP nomination, though he's previously cast doubt on Trump's ability to win this fall.

He told reporters he didn't plan to announce a run Wednesday, but "I've made no secret of my intentions."

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., speaks during a news conference with Republican Senators about border security issues at the U.S. Capitol January 24, 2024 in Washington, DC.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., speaks during a news conference with Republican Senators about border security issues at the U.S. Capitol January 24, 2024 in Washington, DC.

Wildcard candidates

The likely wildcard candidate to watch is Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., who challenged McConnell as leader in 2022. He lost in a 37-10 vote, but he hasn't ruled out vying for the spot again. He said Wednesday, however, that his focus is on his reelection campaign this fall.

He has been a leading critic of McConnell's in recent years and a prominent voice among the ultraconservative wing of the Senate GOP. He is also a vocal supporter of Trump.

And the Florida senator may already have some supporters. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., said he has "an open mind" but noted he supported Scott in 2022 and touted his role in getting the contentious debt ceiling deal across the finish line last year.

"He tenaciously kept holding weekly meetings with House conservatives. None of us had ever agreed to support an increase in the debt ceiling but working through that process, we said ok we'd rather get something than nothing," he said.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., is also reportedly considering a run. He's close with McConnell, but may first be vaulted into another lower-down leadership role.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was one of the lawmakers who voted to oust McConnell in 2022, and he has recently called on McConnell to step down from his leadership post. The senator on Wednesday wouldn't say whether he would support Cornyn, his fellow Texan.

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., said there are 10-15 people interested in the job. The first thing that needs to happen, he said, was for Trump and McConnell to "get on the phone together and talk about it."

The Alabama lawmaker also said McConnell should endorse Trump and make sure "they're on the same page" so he can effectively support GOP candidates through the 2024 election – even as "a lame duck leader."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Who will replace Mitch McConnell as Senate Republican leader?