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Cornyn already running hard to replace McConnell

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) was just getting off the phone with Arizona GOP candidate Kari Lake Thursday night when we approached him outside the Senate chamber.

Cornyn, the first GOP senator to officially jump into the race to succeed Mitch McConnell, has been talking to any Republican with a pulse to try to gin up support for his bid to be Senate Republican leader. In fact, Cornyn’s call with Lake came as another potential McConnell successor, GOP Conference Chair John Barrasso, was out in Arizona campaigning for her.

Cornyn’s blitz includes nearly every member of his conference and the most important Republican in the country — former President Donald Trump.

The 72-year-old Cornyn, who’s been in the Senate since 2002, has been very aggressive out of the gate. Cornyn is relying heavily on moves he’s previously made on the fundraising front, including raking in money for GOP incumbents and candidates even before they ask for it.

Remember, Cornyn doesn’t currently serve in elected leadership, although he’s part of McConnell’s inner circle. Cornyn, who twice served as NRSC chair, was term-limited out of the GOP whip job in 2019. That puts him at a disadvantage compared to Barrasso or Senate Minority Whip John Thune. Barrasso won’t say anything yet about his intentions for the race, while Thune is still looking at it.

“I’ve been telling people for a long time now that I was interested in succeeding Mitch,” Cornyn told us, later recounting how he communicated this directly to Thune when the South Dakota Republican succeeded him as whip. “It’s no secret.”

Cornyn added: “And I think there would be a lot of speculation about who’s in and who’s out, and I didn’t see any benefit in waiting.”

Cornyn may have the most at stake here of any potential McConnell successor. Cornyn is up for reelection in 2026, and a lack of a leadership post could be a factor in whether he stays. Cornyn — who serves on the Finance, Judiciary and Intelligence panels — told us he intends to run for reelection.

The rest of the field is being much more cautious so far. Thune’s office released a statement saying he’d call around to senators to find out “what they would like to see in their next leader.”

Barrasso, who is sailing to reelection this year, was in Arizona Thursday with Lake.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) wrote on X thanking a House member for saying he’d make a good GOP leader (Scott was easily defeated by McConnell in a Nov. 2022 leadership challenge). And NRSC Chair Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who’s being encouraged by Trump to run, says he’s laser-focused on winning the Senate majority.

To some potential candidates, there’s no particular rush, especially since the race itself will be a long slog — eight months.

The case for Cornyn: There are some obvious strengths here for the Texas Republican. First, his fundraising abilities are similar to those of McConnell. Cornyn can raise a lot of money fast, and he’s been very deliberate in spreading it around the conference.

According to a source familiar with Cornyn’s political operation, he has raised $13 million for the NRSC, GOP incumbents and candidates so far in the 2024 cycle. Cumulatively, Cornyn has been the top Senate GOP fundraiser over the last decade except for McConnell.

“I come from a big state which is the ATM for Republicans,” Cornyn joked. “And people expect the leader to raise money for the team.”

Cornyn also served as GOP whip during a consequential period in Trump’s presidency, helping shepherd through the former president’s tax overhaul bill and dozens of judicial appointments. Cornyn told us he reminded Trump of that when they spoke on Wednesday.

Possible fault lines: After leaving the whip job, Cornyn was a central player in several of the Senate’s bipartisan achievements during the first two years of Joe Biden’s presidency. This includes the CHIPS Act and the gun safety bill.

Cornyn’s involvement in the latter drew complaints from Senate conservatives and back home, as well as from Trump, who called him a “RINO.” But following the horrific Uvalde school shooting in 2022, Cornyn said even Texas lawmakers knew that changes to gun laws were necessary.

Cornyn also criticized Trump following the 2020 election, saying his “time has passed.” Cornyn told us he thinks Trump is willing to “bury the hatchet.”

“You remember the things that Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham have said?” Cornyn noted. “[Trump] doesn’t really hold a grudge unless you’re in constant battle with him.”

But Cornyn also suggested to us that, if Trump is president and he’s the GOP leader, he would push back when necessary:

— Andrew Desiderio and John Bresnahan

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