Republicans buzz about whether alternative will emerge to Thune, Cornyn

Rick Scott is “seriously considering” it. Steve Daines might make a move after the election.

For now, though, it looks like the Two Johns may have the race for GOP leader to themselves for awhile.

In interviews with more than a half-dozen Republicans late this week, several said they did not expect any imminent alternative to emerge to Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) or Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a former whip.

That’s not to say someone might eventually launch a run to succeed Mitch McConnell. But Republicans don’t see that happening anytime soon.

“Right now it hasn’t surfaced. Obviously that group that voted against McConnell last go round, there could be maybe somebody that could come out of that group,” said Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.). “It may be just Cornyn and Thune. At this point, that’s the case.”

Sen. John Barrasso’s (R-Wyo.) decision to run for party whip instead of leader removed the most conservative, Trump-aligned option among the three Johns. Thune and Cornyn have been preparing for McConnell’s potential exit as leader for years, with up and down relationships with the former president but also deep experience and relationship with many GOP senators.

Scott or Daines could run, but Daines is the campaign chair and Scott is up for reelection this fall, making it tough for either to focus on the leadership race. And despite McConnell’s critics in the conference, it’s possible Thune and Cornyn are the only options during the secret ballot elections.

Both are natural heirs to McConnell, but conservatives dealt with the question of whether the party needs a clean break carefully.

“Everybody’s doing some soul searching right now,” said Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.). “I’m trying to figure out who Cornyn and Thune are outside of Mitch McConnell’s shadow.”

In an interview, Scott said he had no timeline on when he will make a decision. He suggested the GOP needs to assess its future and direction as a conference before making a decision: “The right process is to figure out what we’re going to be as a conference and then make a decision about what we do as leader.”

Scott lost handily to McConnell in 2022 but launched himself as an alternative to the GOP leader and won 10 votes, a move that cemented a band of McConnell critics. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) predicted there will be an alternative and said three Republican senators are thinking about it.

But with Cornyn and Thune “now beating up on each other,” Hawley said. “I could see folks that are thinking about it saying: ‘What’s the rush?'”

Another top McConnell foil, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who had toyed with a run in 2022, indicated tepid enthusiasm for it this time.

“My role in the conference has been the kid who points out the emperor does not have clothes on,” Johnson said. “That kid is not real popular.”

Of course, a non-John candidate could be fueled by former President Donald Trump if he wins the election, though a wholesale leadership shake-up seems out of vogue. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) is running for conference chair, but he’s the only newcomer currently pursuing a leadership bid.

“Rick’s a good guy. … If Steve runs, I think he’d have support. But I haven’t heard anybody say, ‘It’s time to turn the page,’” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “Do we need to flush everybody out? No.”

Another thing’s become abundantly clear in recent days: There’s more appetite for a lengthy process than a quick one. McConnell will serve out his term as leader through the year rather than prompt a mid-Congress scramble. And there’s not a ton of protest about that.

Republicans will meet on March 20 to start the discussions, with more to come according to Johnson, who praised McConnell for giving the GOP time to work out its internal issues rather than force a quick succession.

Not everyone agrees.

“It’s hard to have a lame-duck leader. Nobody listens to you. I’d like to see [McConnell] be a consultant to somebody that we choose,” said Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.). He wants a GOP leader that could campaign with Trump. And with a November leadership election, he added, “we lose that.”

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