The insider's guide to the McConnell succession race


Mitch McConnell’s exit as Senate GOP leader this fall officially kicks off a succession battle that has so far played out only in the backrooms of the Capitol.

The Kentucky Republican isn’t stepping aside until November, but three potential heirs have long loomed large in the Hill’s calculus. Somewhat confusingly, all three are white men named John: Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), former whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) and GOP Conference Chair John Barrasso (R-Wyo.).

For the moment, very few GOP senators are declaring their preferred McConnell successor. Asked which of the “three Johns” he favors to become the next Republican leader, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) spoke for many on Wednesday by chuckling and replying only, “good question.”

“There’s a lot of people who want it, clearly. And the race has been underway for months. So now it’s gonna get really intense, I suspect,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a McConnell critic. He also said he had no preference at the moment: “I’m open to persuasion.”

Barrasso, unlike Cornyn and Thune, has yet to publicly confirm his interest in the top job. He said on Wednesday that “there’s a much more important election between now and then,” referring to the post-Election Day timing of the eventual vote on McConnell’s successor. “And that’s the election we need to take the presidency and the Senate and the House — and that’s where my focus is.”

Even so, the subtle differences between the “Three Johns,” as well as the potential entrance of a sleeper candidate or two, will make for a long leadership campaign season in the Senate. Here is a guide to how to tell the differences between the three, and which other players may enter the race over the next few months.

Since getting easily reelected, John Thune made clear that Donald Trump wasn't his first choice for president.

Thune

The low-key and affable South Dakotan, 63, almost passed on reelection in 2022 after Donald Trump suggested that Thune might draw a primary challenge in exchange for critical comments about efforts to overturn the former president’s 2020 election loss. But Trump never got too involved in Thune’s race, and the opportunity to eventually succeed McConnell was on the senator’s mind as he weighed his choice.

Since getting easily reelected, Thune made clear that Trump wasn’t his first choice for president by initially endorsing Tim Scott, then offering Trump soft support after the South Carolinian dropped out. Earlier this week, Thune formally backed the former president.

John Cornyn's conservative bona fides haven't stopped him from supporting the occasional big-ticket bipartisan deal.

Cornyn

The 72-year-old Texan is no less approachable than Thune in the halls of the Senate, but his style of politics runs a bit more bare-knuckled. Cornyn spend two election cycles chairing the National Republican Senatorial committee and held the GOP whip’s job for six years, giving him a clear view of McConnell’s challenges — so clear that he ended up staying at the leadership table even after term limits forced him to cede the No. 2 spot to Thune.

Cornyn’s conservative bona fides haven’t stopped him from supporting the occasional big-ticket bipartisan deal, and in 2022, he even shepherded through a gun safety measure with Democrats. He endorsed Trump formally last month though he has acknowledged that a return to office for the former president is “not without its challenges.”

John Barrasso's current role as conference chair has allowed him to give a wide swath of colleagues speaking roles in lengthy press conferences.

Barrasso

The 71-year-old Wyoming Republican, if he ultimately enters the race to succeed McConnell as expected, would serve as the most vocally pro-Trump and conservative of the Three Johns. He was the first of the trio to endorse Trump, followed by Cornyn and most recently, Thune. That could win him favor from conservatives in the long run.

His current role as conference chair has allowed him to give a wide swath of colleagues speaking roles in lengthy press conferences, just one way he has tried to ingratiate himself and ease his path up the leadership ladder. If he passes on the leader race, he could end up seeking the whip job.

He is also the only one of the “three Johns” that is actually up for reelection this year, but he’s expected to coast to victory.

Asked Wednesday about his plans, Rick Scott didn't rule out running.

The wild cards

The Three Johns have a head start in the succession race, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be the only candidates to replace McConnell. Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), after quipping that his favorite leader hopeful was simply “John,” suggested that other hopefuls may enter.

Chief among them, and floated directly by Hawley, is the Florida Republican who lost overwhelmingly to McConnell after the 2022 midterms: Rick Scott. Asked Wednesday about his plans, the vocally pro-Trump Floridian didn’t rule out running.

Now is a time to honor the current leader’s legacy, “and I’ll make my case” at a later moment, Rick Scott said, adding that for now he’s focused on his fall reelection effort.

There could also be additional GOP leader hopefuls who emerge over the next few months. Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) told POLITICO on Wednesday that he expects as many as eight to 10 candidates to enter the race.

One name to keep an eye on: NRSC Chair Steve Daines (R-Mont.), an early Trump backer who, if he impresses with his performance on behalf of the party’s Senate candidates this fall, could get talked about as a potential future leader.

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.



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