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Republicans balk at Trump playing a role in the fight to replace McConnell

SenateRepublicans have a clear message for former president Donald Trump about the race to replace Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: stay out of this.

After they got over the initial shock of McConnell’s announcement on Wednesday, the race to replace him – namely among the “Three Johns,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune, Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso and Senator John Cornyn of Texas – has begun at a quick pace. Friends of The Independent’sInside Washington newsletter Stef Kight and Stephen Neukam at Axios reported that Trump wants National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Steve Daines of Montana to run for the job.

But Republicans expressed scepticism about Trump playing a role in replacing McConnell, his longtime nemesis.

Unsurprisingly, some of the Republicans who voted to convict Trump for his actions on January 6 don’t want him to have a role at all. Senator Lisa Murkowski said “I don’t” before brushing off a question from The Independent. Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana didn’t want Trump to intervene.

“He should play no role whatsoever,” he told The Independent, saying that it would cross lines between the executive and legislative branches. “And the executive should not be picking the leadership of a congressional body. Period, end of story.”

That may not come as a surprise, given their dislike of Trump. But even more pro-Trump Republicans say the former president will not have as much sway.

“The Republican conference picks the leader,” Senator Deb Fischer of Nebraska, who endorsed Trump, tersely told The Independent.

Senator Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma told The Independent that the conference needed to sort it out themselves (for the uninitiated, Republicans call themselves a “conference” to differentiate themselves from Democrats, who call themselves a “caucus” and they get cross when confused).

“I believe the Senate works its will out on the leader, but I think it's helpful for whoever's going to be the leader, to have good relationships, with our – hopefully – our next president,” Mr Mullin said. When asked whether it would be helpful to for Trump to endorse a candidate, he said “as long as it’s the candidate I’m supporting.”

Of course, Trump never shies away from saying whatever he wants to say and Senate Republicans know this.

“I'd be shocked if he didn't weigh in,” Senaror Roger Marshall of Kansas, a Maga Republican (who nonetheless likes Taylor Swift). “But I think that there's more than one person that he could support.”

Even Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, one of the most hard-right Republicans who regularly dabbles in conspiracy theories, said that Senate Republicans had to handle the matter and said emphatically that it would not serve Republicans well for Trump to support someone.

“I don't want to rush to judgment right now,” he told The Independent. “I don't want a beauty contest. I don't want a personality contest. I want to have us go through this process and see which leaders emerge out of that process.”

To be clear, the Senate is not the US House of Representatives. When Congressman Matt Gaetz successfully ousted Kevin McCarthy last year, Trump played a large role in naming his successor, getting behind Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan – who failed in his bid – and successfully jettisoning House Majority Whip Tom Emmer to the point his status as the Republican choice lasted only a few hours. Trump got behind eventual Speaker Mike Johnson and Johnson’s role in Trump’s legal efforts to overturn the 2020 election earned the Louisiana right-winger goodwill.

But the Senate has never been a hotbed of Maga sentiment. While 139 Republicans voted to overturn the 2020 election results on January 6, only eight Republican senators did the same. Senators also historically do not like being told by the president what to do, even when they share a party, let alone being told how to vote by a former president with no formal power.

On top of that, unlike the speaker vote last year, which took place in a public way on the House floor, Republicans will decide amongst themselves.

“I think it may influence some members, but it's a secret ballot,” Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina told The Independent. “And I think that at the end of the day people are going to vote the leader they're most comfortable with.”

Of course, Trump has already begun to encroach on the territory of the Senate in recent months after the upper chamber’s leadership long considered itself – rightly or wrongly – an island mostly devoid of extremism. But Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama told The Independent that Trump would have a role.

“Well he should be involved. He shouldn’t have a vote in it, obviously,” the Auburn University football head coach turned senator said. “But he shouldn’t be very concerned about who and when, you know, thank you very much.”

By contrast, his fellow Alabaman Katie Britt took a more cryptic approach, saying that the Republican majority would work “hand in glove” with him. When asked whether it would be helpful if Trump endorsed someone, she simply smiled as she went inside the Senate. A few hours later, Republicans announced that Britt, who is 42 and who was elected in 2022, will deliver the Republican response to Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, a sign of the changing of the guard.

All the while, McConnell, the day after his announcement caused a political earthquake, mosied to the Senate basement for an intelligence briefing. In a sign the usually taciturn Kentuckian might be getting sentimental, he waved as reporters, whom he almost never acknowledges on his own accord.