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Sen. Mitch McConnell

Conservatives plot their moves in Senate leadership race

The anti-Mitch McConnell, hardline conservative faction remains a minority in the Senate Republican Conference. But they’ll have an outsized role in determining who becomes the next Senate GOP leader.

That’s because former President Donald Trump will very likely wade into the race, especially if he wins the presidency in November. Trump’s influence is just one factor that will drive how this group votes. They’ll need to unite around a candidate if they have any hope of installing one of their own as GOP leader.

Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), Trump’s closest Senate ally, said it’s too early to make a judgment because it remains unclear who is running for the job. But Vance specifically named Senate GOP Conference Chair John Barrasso when asked about possible successors.

“John Barrasso is certainly one of the leadership candidates who cares a lot, I think, about where the broader conservative movement is,” Vance said. “But I don’t know that he actually wants to run.”

Barrasso is viewed as the most conservative member of the current GOP leadership team, but he hasn’t officially said whether he’s jumping into the race. He could also seek the No. 2 job.

Other conservatives have named Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who challenged McConnell unsuccessfully in November 2022. Scott has been noncommittal thus far and is considered a longshot.

Conservatives’ first missive in the leadership race was a request to hold a conference-wide meeting later this month focused on their “direction” as a group. They want to agree on a blueprint for the next Republican leader that can be used to compare the various candidates once they all emerge.

“The first step of this is to decide — how do we want to be managed and what do we want to accomplish?” Scott said.

Will McConnell leave before November? The outgoing Senate minority leader could move to head off Trump’s influence on his successor if he steps down from his role before November, ensuring that the race takes place before the presidential race is over.

Conservatives aren’t thinking about it that way just yet, and McConnell has said he’s staying put. Instead, conservatives are suggesting that McConnell can’t adequately fulfill his job duties — including fundraising for the party’s candidates — as a “lame-duck” leader.

“I do have concerns about a lame-duck session for six or eight months, including just raising money for the party,” Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) said. “There could be an election sooner… We’ll see how things go.”

“If you have the leadership field set and you have a majority of us coalesce around a candidate, then I think it makes no sense to wait [until November],” added Vance.

Of course, the news of McConnell’s decision to step down at the end of this Congress is still fresh, and the field of candidates to replace him isn’t yet set. Only Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) has officially jumped into the race to succeed him. Senate Minority Whip John Thune is expected to follow soon.

“We’re going to be weeks and months into this before we can assess anyone’s campaigns,” said Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), who isn’t a part of the anti-McConnell wing.

— Andrew Desiderio

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