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Trump is wild card in Senate GOP leader race

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell never said the words “Donald Trump” in announcing his decision Wednesday to step down as GOP leader following the November elections.

But it was clear that the former president’s influence on his party — and inside the Senate GOP Conference — was top-of-mind for the 82-year-old Kentucky Republican.

“Believe me, I know the politics within my party at this particular moment in time,” McConnell said. “I have many faults — misunderstanding politics is not one of them.”

The big question now is what role Trump will have in picking the next GOP leader. Trump is the wild card here, the unpredictable element that could tilt the decision one way or the other. That’s the case with pretty much anything in the Republican Party these days.

The GOP leadership election will occur in mid to late November, shortly after the presidential contest. If Trump wins, he’ll have maximum sway. He could essentially have a veto over McConnell’s replacement. Not a full veto, of course; senators still prize their independence.

Yet Trump is far more likely to wade personally into this fight — and other congressional leadership elections — than previous presidents would ever dream of doing. Trump has long called for McConnell to be ousted from Republican leadership, even using racial slurs against Elaine Chao, McConnell’s wife and Trump’s former Transportation secretary. However, a Trump endorsement by McConnell is under discussion.

Trump’s boosters in the Senate say it’s essential that the next Senate GOP leader has a good relationship with the former, and possibly future, president. These senators see the upcoming vacancy as an opportunity to elect a Republican who’s more like Trump.

“[Trump] is, at the very least, the leader of the party over the campaign cycle, and likely the next Republican president. So his views will be given an extraordinarily large amount of weight,” Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), one of Trump’s closest Senate allies, told us. “And that’s justifiable.”

Two of the “Three Johns” seen as the top choices to succeed McConnell — Senate Minority Whip John Thune and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) — are close McConnell allies who had their run-ins with Trump following the 2020 election and Jan. 6 Capitol attack. Trump went after them personally, and they in turn questioned his fitness for office. But Thune and Cornyn are backing Trump now. Cornyn was already making calls to Republican senators just a few hours after McConnell’s announcement on Wednesday.

The third John — Republican Conference Chair John Barrasso — is seen as the most conservative of the trio. He was the first of the Johns to endorse Trump, a move that in some ways forced Cornyn and Thune to follow suit. Barrasso has also broken from McConnell and the rest of the leadership team on big votes, which could help him with Trump.

Sens. Steve Daines — the NRSC chair — and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a one-time Trump rival, are in the mix as well. Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.) have been floated as potential candidates.

It’s important to remember one key thing about leadership races — they’re not popularity contests. It’s a hard-nosed assessment of how voting for any one candidate will help that senator. The answer is different for each senator. We saw this play out during the fight over the House speakership last year.

The Trump factor: Trump is all about loyalty, and he’s most likely to endorse the candidate he sees as the biggest Trump loyalist. Being closely tied to McConnell, fair or not, probably isn’t helpful if you want to lead the Senate GOP in a second Trump presidency.

Thune and Cornyn have publicly defended the Kentucky Republican from his critics. They also both voted alongside McConnell recently to advance the massive $95 billion foreign aid package that has become a political lightning rod in the GOP. At the same time, both played critical roles in Trump’s legislative accomplishments and judicial appointments.

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), who supports Thune, said his fellow South Dakota Republican’s recent decision to endorse Trump was “an appropriate move for a leader in our conference,” adding: “That’s a leader trying to make the right decision at the right time.” Rounds and Thune initially backed Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) in the presidential race.

A sea change: November 2024 is still eight months away, and a lot can happen, including the possible election of new GOP senators in Trump’s mold. The Senate GOP Conference has undergone a significant transformation in recent election cycles as Trump allies have replaced more moderate, deal-making Republicans who were close with McConnell. See Rob Portman, Roy Blunt, Lamar Alexander, Bob Corker and many others.

But the anti-McConnell wing of the GOP Conference remains a distinct minority, meaning even potential successors seen as closer to McConnell are still in a strong position. This is especially the case for Thune, who is banking on his close personal relationships with GOP colleagues.

— Andrew Desiderio and John Bresnahan

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