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Thune, Cornyn, Scott

How Senate GOP leadership hopefuls are courting conservatives

The Senate GOP leadership elections are still several months away. But the Republicans vying for top spots are quietly taking steps to woo the conference’s right flank, a critical voting bloc for the secret ballot races.

So far, just two of the races for the 118th Congress are contested — the Senate GOP leader slot, as well as the Republican conference chair, the No. 3 position in the leadership. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) is running unopposed for GOP whip.

And while it’s still early, each candidate is maneuvering in unique ways to win over the small but growing faction of conservatives crowing for dramatic changes to the way the conference operates.

“At this point, everybody wants to be friends with everybody — and that’s great,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who is part of the conservative faction. “But there’s a long, long time here. It’s awfully early to be making any decisions… My mind is far from made up.”

For Senate Minority Whip John Thune and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the goal is to satisfy conservatives with promises of a break from Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s way of doing business — but without alienating the conference’s so-called “governing coalition.”

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who only recently jumped into the race against Thune and Cornyn, is campaigning on a major overhaul of the conference and its rules. Scott was the face of the anti-McConnell group when he challenged the longtime GOP leader in 2022, but he lost resoundingly.

So far, the race for conference chair is between Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). As recently as Wednesday, Cotton introduced a proposal to bar birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants. Ernst signed onto Sen. Mike Lee’s (R-Utah) pledge to oppose Democratic-led floor efforts in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s conviction in the New York City hush-money trial.

Here’s what else the candidates in the contested races have done recently that could be seen as feelers to the right:

Thune joined a Scott-led condemnation of Democrats’ “show” votes on the floor this week. More on that below.

Cornyn previously has called for term limits for the Republican leader post, which McConnell opposes. And just this week, Cornyn spoke up during a closed-door GOP lunch in a way that some conservatives saw as a desire to buttress their contrarian strategy to counteract Democrats’ abortion-related floor votes.

Ernst led the GOP alternative to the contraception bill Democrats forced a vote on Wednesday.

Keeping the powder dry: While Scott is a strong “anti-establishment” candidate, he hasn’t picked up any endorsements. Few Republicans see a benefit to publicly locking themselves in with a candidate five months in advance — save for Sens. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) and Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) who support Thune. Most GOP senators believe there will be more than three candidates to choose from.

“I’ve been watching every one of their votes for almost three years now, listening to everything they say,” said Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), a frequent Scott booster. “All three are capable of doing the job.”

Republican senators we spoke with don’t see Scott’s ceiling as being much higher than the 10 votes he got last time. But the conservative faction could sway the outcome, especially if their preferred candidate — Scott or somebody else — is forced to drop off after the first ballot. That could mean extracting concessions from the eventual winner in exchange for their support.

So these early moves by Thune and Cornyn could help. Scott told us he welcomed their appeals to the right.

“Look, it’s an election. Everybody ought to be talking about what they’re going to do,” Scott said, arguing he has the best conservative bona fides. “I’ve been very clear, I think we have to have a term limit. I think we ought to make sure we get amendment votes.”

Scott’s play: Scott has largely conducted his leadership run in the public sphere, while Thune and Cornyn are focusing on individual meetings with colleagues and doing most of their maneuvering behind the scenes. Both are also emphasizing their fundraising prowess.

But Scott’s strategy comes with some advantages, too. This week, the Florida Republican got a majority of the conference to sign onto a statement condemning Democrats’ decision to put a contraception bill up for a vote. The signatories ran the ideological gamut inside the GOP.

This is a key pillar of Scott’s candidacy — the idea that the leader’s decision-making should be guided by the majority of the conference, not a select few. This has been a long-running criticism of McConnell, who has often been forced to rely on a handful of GOP votes to push through must-pass measures, like funding the government.

Of course, the current crop of Republican senators isn’t all that accustomed to even having a real leadership race. McConnell has led the conference unchallenged for the better part of two decades.

So the Kentucky Republican’s decision to step aside as leader — and announce it months in advance — has led to an unusual succession battle.

— Andrew Desiderio and Max Cohen

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