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Sen. Mitch McConnell

GOP leadership hopefuls use McConnell as a foil — though not by name

Senate Republicans vying for top leadership spots in the post-Mitch McConnell era are promising dramatic changes to how their conference is run, in what amounts to a semi-rebuke of the Kentucky Republican’s 17 years of iron rule.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who’s running to replace McConnell, wants term limits on the party leader and an end to leadership-negotiated spending bills. Senate Minority Whip John Thune, also running for leader, said the race is a “chance for a reset.” And GOP Conference Chair John Barrasso, who’s running for whip, told colleagues he wants to see a “break from where we are now.”

On top of that, some of the Senate’s hardline conservatives — knowing their odds are slim to install one of their own as leader — are looking for changes to the super PAC at the heart of McConnell’s fundraising operation, the Senate Leadership Fund.

Conservatives could be the swing votes in the GOP leader race, so emphasizing a departure from the McConnell era is a strategic benefit for leadership hopefuls. Thune told us he doesn’t see this as a criticism of the way McConnell ran the conference — though to many, that’s certainly the implication.

“Clearly this is a transition,” Thune said. “You’ve had somebody in the leader job for [17] years — that’s a long time. And I think anytime you go through a transition, there’s a pivot that comes with that.”

Term limits: Every position in the Senate GOP leadership is term-limited with the exception of the leader. Cornyn knows this well; he was term-limited out of the No. 2 job under McConnell after three Congresses. Thune is term-limited at the end of this Congress.

Cornyn came out in favor of term limits for the leader post, saying it was part of his push to empower individual senators. Cornyn wouldn’t say whether these represent criticisms of McConnell’s record-breaking tenure as party leader.

“There’s a couple of reasons why people are so frustrated with the Senate as it currently operates,” Cornyn said, naming the “crazy idea” of a leadership-driven, closed-door government funding process. “I think we can do better.”

McConnell later panned the term-limits idea as “totally inappropriate.”

“We have term limits now — they’re called elections,” McConnell said, noting he faced a challenger following the 2022 elections. “I think the conference ought to be able to be free to choose whoever.”

Senate Leadership Fund: The McConnell-aligned super PAC has long been a thorn in the side of conservatives, who believe the group has undermined their preferred candidates in Republican primaries over the years.

McConnell’s guiding principle is what he calls “candidate quality” — the idea that the party should work to ensure that the most electable Republicans win their primaries. The end result of this strategy is that some more conservative candidates — who are likely to fare worse in a general election — sometimes get boxed out.

“I’ve always felt that the Senate Leadership Fund certainly was not helpful to the NRSC in terms of the NRSC’s ability to raise funds,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) told us. “So I think it’s an issue that needs to be discussed.”

When asked if there should be new leadership at SLF, Johnson replied: “In some way, shape or form.”

We’ll note right here that SLF poured $26 million into Johnson’s razor-tight 2022 win. SLF also boosted Johnson in his 2016 upset victory.

Yet we overheard a trio of conservative GOP senators openly complaining the other day about the need for changes at SLF. It’s clearly an issue that bothers them since they see it as an extension of McConnell’s power.

Steven Law, SLF’s president and CEO — and a former McConnell chief of staff — told us in a statement: “We’re pretty busy around here working to win back the Senate majority. That’s my sole focus through November.”

Law also has the backing of NRSC Chair Steve Daines: “When Republicans take the majority in November, [SLF] and Steven Law will have played a critical role. We’re lucky to have Steven at the helm of the Senate Leadership Fund.”

SLF has become a fundraising juggernaut thanks to its ties to McConnell. SLF and its affiliated groups have raised nearly $1.7 billion since it was set up after the 2014 elections.

“It’s one of the things [McConnell] did do very well,” said Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), who’s aligned with conservatives. “Say what you want about Mitch McConnell… I really do think he was trying to pick candidates that he thought could win.”

— Andrew Desiderio and John Bresnahan

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Editorial photos provided by Getty Images. Political ads courtesy of AdImpact.