The Race to Be the Next GOP Senate Leader Leaves the Shadows

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

In the chaotic minutes following Mitch McConnell’s announcement that he would step down as Republican Senate leader, reporters approached Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH) in the Capitol to ask who he wanted to replace McConnell.

Vance had a playful answer: “John.”

While no one knows yet who will succeed McConnell, the leading contenders all happen to have the most common name in the U.S. Senate (and the second most common name in America).

For well over a year, the so-called “Three Johns” have been identified as players in the quiet race to succeed McConnell unfolding in the shadows: the current No. 2 GOP senator, John Thune (R-SD); the former No. 2 GOP senator, John Cornyn (R-TX); and Senate GOP Conference Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY).

Mitch McConnell to Step Down as Senate Republican Leader in November

But when McConnell finally made it official Wednesday that this year will be his last as GOP leader, what followed was a burst of activity that suggested the race to succeed him could be even more tumultuous than anticipated.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), who challenged McConnell for the job in 2022, issued a statement in which he didn’t rule out a run.

Other conservatives spoke highly of Scott, including Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), who also mentioned Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) as a possible candidate.

“Listen, I’m totally open to anybody,” Hawley told reporters. “I’m completely persuadable. I like all of these folks. Everybody who’s floated their name. You know, I imagine there’ll be more people floating their names and so I’ve heard more new names today in the past hour.”

Even Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) is weighing a leadership bid, according to Politico, either for the top spot or perhaps one of the vacated positions if someone moves up the ranks.

Meanwhile, the Johns publicly kept their plans private Wednesday, expressing deference to McConnell—at least for one day.

“Today,” Thune told reporters Wednesday, “we just want to reflect on his service and honor him.”

But any broad mood of reflection didn’t even last one day; a source familiar with the campaigns told The Daily Beast Wednesday night that multiple senators were already making calls to whip votes.

When asked by the Texas Tribune, Cornyn simply said he has made “no secret of my intentions,” but declined to outline any specifics about a likely leadership run.

According to CNN, Barrasso said he was focusing on the “much more important election”—the November general election for the White House and Congress—which will happen before Senate leadership elections later that month.

With potentially a handful of senators set to run for the conference’s top spot, Republicans seem destined for an epic power struggle through November, adding a layer of intensity onto what is already a packed 2024.

Mitch McConnell Could Have Been One of the Greats, but Trump Beat Him

The party is seeking to recapture the majority by taking advantage of a favorable Senate map. But on Capitol Hill, GOP senators have frequently been at odds with their House counterparts in avoiding a government shutdown and navigating policy minefields like border security and Ukraine aid.

McConnell’s announcement may give him further latitude to accomplish his own goals, like funding much-needed weapons for Ukraine, but that particular policy fight could grow even more fraught as McConnell’s successors position themselves with fellow GOP senators, voters, and perhaps the most important voice of all: Donald Trump.

While McConnell has practically made a sport out of disregarding Trump, the former president still wields immense power with the Republican base and senators. Just as his endorsement in Senate elections has become critical for GOP candidates, Trump’s backing in a leadership contest could prove decisive.

If that’s the case, Thune—who many consider to be the frontrunner—may have some problems. He’s another vocal supporter of Ukraine aid, and he has never been a huge fan of Trump, so much so that he previously faced primary threats from the former president’s camp. (Thune even held out on endorsing Trump until it almost became politically untenable; he finally bowed to the electoral reality this week by endorsing Trump’s 2024 campaign on Sunday.)

But a senior GOP leadership aide told The Daily Beast Wednesday night that leadership races are always “weird.”

“Trump’s support would definitely help with some senators, but it cuts the other way too,” this aide said. “It probably helps more than it hurts, but this is a closed-door, secret ballot election. It’s really not like some local primary where everyone is waiting to hear from Trump.”

The aide continued that, “at the end of the day,” you need about 25 senators to support you. “Either Cornyn or Thune could probably get there with or without Trump’s endorsement,” this person said.

While a host of senators may jump into the race, the initial wisdom on Capitol Hill Wednesday was that it was largely a two-person race between Thune and Cornyn—and between the two, it could go either way.

“Cornyn was probably the clear successor two years ago,” a senior GOP aide said. “It’s not as clear anymore.”

Cornyn, often sought out by reporters for a candid quote, is perhaps best positioned to continue McConnell’s playbook of sharp-elbowed legislative and campaign tactics. He has served as a committee chairman and twice chaired the Senate GOP’s campaign arm.

However, the Texas Republican has faced blowback from the GOP base for his occasional inclination toward dealmaking, most recently in 2022, when he worked with Democrats to pass a modest gun reform package.

That reputation could hurt Cornyn with conservatives, but it again could cut both ways. Some senators want to make deals. Some don’t. But there’s likely a third group who don’t want to publicly support bipartisan wheeling and dealing while privately understanding the need for it.

The Race to Replace Mitch McConnell as GOP Leader Is Already On

Barrasso is seen as the most partisan of the three Johns, leading messaging against Democrats for several years as the Conference chairman. He was also the first of the three to endorse Trump in 2024, which was no surprise given his historically solid support for the former president.

While Barrasso may be the longshot of the trio of Johns, he’s by no means out of the race, particularly if he can convince conservatives—or Trump—that he’s their best chance at a real change in leadership.

A candidate like Scott would represent the most radical departure from the McConnell era. The former two-term governor of Florida has served in the Senate for five years, carving out a niche as a leading Trump supporter and hardliner on a number of policy fronts. His combative approach—and much-criticized run as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2022—earned him plenty of enemies on his own side, while Democrats have gleefully held him up as a favorite foil.

Whoever ultimately wins the job, that person will instantly become a bogeyman, both for Democrats and, inevitably, some Republicans.

That reality had finally begun to damage McConnell, who has perhaps done more to implement conservative policies—both legislatively and through installing conservatives in the judiciary—than any other Republican alive.

On top of his own health struggles and standoffs with Trump, McConnell has increasingly found himself at odds with the mainstream GOP position—not because he has changed, but because Trump has largely redefined what it means to be a Republican.

As the GOP worked through those changes, McConnell struggled to bring his party together on much of anything. His successor will almost certainly have the same problems.

Democrats Consider the Unthinkable: Missing Mitch McConnell

Even in their early reactions to the succession conversation, GOP senators began to separate themselves along a clear line: whether they wanted continuity with the McConnell reign, or dramatic change.

Asked what kind of qualities he was looking for in a new leader, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA)—the only senator more senior than McConnell—had a quick answer.

“McConnell qualities,” Grassley said. “A long view.”

“I would like somebody like him… somebody that kind of looks at the future,” said Sen. John Boozman (R-AR). “I think he did a very, very good job of that.”

To some conservative senators, though, “McConnell qualities” amount to nothing good.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) said he has been “asking for quite some time” for a “more collaborative conference, one that takes advantage of the talent that we have within our conference.” He also wanted “more votes about where our positions are so we know exactly what the consensus of the conference is.”

While Johnson’s calls for GOP consensus are far from a controversial opinion, finding that consensus has been increasingly difficult to find. That difficulty has recently brought McConnell to Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). The two worked together to push for Ukraine aid and infrastructure spending, among other things, drawing suspicion from conservatives.

Those pressures came to a head in the days and weeks before McConnell’s announcement. The GOP leader’s vocal support for providing increased aid to Ukraine put him at odds with MAGA senators like Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Vance. But when Ukraine aid was paired with border enforcement measures in a compromise bill negotiated with McConnell’s blessing, a much wider group of GOP senators revolted, killing the plan.

The saga illustrated the limits that even McConnell began to face in managing his fractious party. No matter what happens in the 2024 elections, his successor is certain to face similar challenges.

Still, Republican senators expressed confidence that the next GOP leader, whoever it is, can follow in McConnell’s footsteps.

“I mean, Mitch, his greatest gift really is probably his political instinct,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND). “And then he has patience, and the ice in his veins that allows him to not be prone to emotion or extremes. And so yeah, I mean, well, we will miss that. But we have a lot of good people that can step up and do the job. I'm confident.”

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