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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
David Smith in Washington

Who will replace Mitch McConnell as Senate leader?

five men in suits stand together
Mitch McConnell speaks alongside, from left to right, John Barrasso, John Cornyn, John Thune and Bill Cassidy at the US Capitol on 19 September 2017. Photograph: Alex Wong/Getty Images

There are as many men named John or Jon in the US Senate as there are African Americans and Latinos combined. Three of them are now vying to become Republican leader in the chamber.

Mitch McConnell’s announcement on Wednesday that he will step down in November opens the way for a likely contest between senators John Thune of South Dakota, John Cornyn of Texas and John Barrasso of Wyoming. On Thursday Cornyn became the first to throw his hat into the ring.

The winner may well become majority leader next year, given the favourable map for Republicans in this election cycle. But they will also have to deal with either the return of Donald Trump to the White House or the ruins of another Republican presidential defeat.

“I turned 82 last week,” McConnell said on the Senate floor, his voice breaking with emotion. “The end of my contributions are closer than I prefer. Father Time remains undefeated. I’m no longer the young man sitting in the back hoping colleagues remember my name. It’s time for the next generation of leadership.”

It was a sign that Trump’s takeover of the Republican party is all but complete. At nearly 17 years, McConnell was the longest-serving Senate leader in US history, giving potential successors plenty of time to quietly manoeuvre into position for when this day finally came.

Thune, 63, the second-ranking Senate Republican, said of McConnell: “He leaves really big shoes to fill … I kind of just want, today, to honour him.” Thune is respected as a powerful fundraiser and experienced political chess player. His bio on Twitter/X says: “Father. Grandfather. Husband. Sports Fan. Avid Outdoorsman. Hates Shoveling Snow.”

He has a complicated relationship with Trump. He condemned the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol as “horrific”, pledged to “hold those responsible to account” and described the former president as “inexcusable”. Trump fired back by declaring the senator’s “political career over” and suggested that the South Dakota governor, Kristi Noem, make a primary challenge in 2022. She decided to pass.

But on Monday, with timing that now seems less than accidental, Thune endorsed Trump for president in 2024. He still has his work cut out to win the “Make America great again” base, however.

Barrasso, 71, is the third-ranking Senate Republican as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference and relatively popular with the Republican right. He is known by many as “Wyoming’s Doctor”, according to his official website, which notes that he spent 24 years as an orthopaedic surgeon and was named Wyoming Physician of the Year.

Barrasso endorsed Trump in January, appearing on the conservative Fox News network to tell Sean Hannity: “We need Donald Trump back in the White House.” He has also supported several “Make America great again” candidates for the Senate, including election denier Kari Lake in Arizona.

Cornyn, 72, who was Republican whip from 2013 to 2019, joined with Democrats in 2022 to pass the bipartisan gun safety act, a move that brought a critical backlash in his home state. He has told colleagues that he intends to run for the leadership, according to the Associated Press, which quoted him as saying: “I believe the Senate is broken – that is not news to anyone.”

Cornyn previously served as a district judge and member of the Texas supreme court, where he ruled with the majority to overturn a lower court ruling that had found Texas’s anti-sodomy laws to be unconstitutional. The former Texas attorney general has also argued that state governments ought to have the power to ban same-sex marriage.

Trump endorsed Cornyn in 2019 when the senator was running for re-election but last year Cornyn expressed scepticism about Trump’s chances. “I think President Trump’s time has passed him by,” he told the Houston Chronicle. “I don’t think President Trump understands that when you run in a general election, you have to appeal to voters beyond your base.”

However, as Trump dominated the primaries, Cornyn endorsed him last month, a week after his Texas colleague Ted Cruz. But he could still face resistance from Trump allies. Ken Paxton, the attorney general of Texas, tweeted: “It will be difficult for Cornyn to be an effective leader since he is anti-Trump, anti-gun, and will be focused on his highly competitive primary campaign in 2026.” The senator responded: “Hard to run from prison, Ken,” – a reference to Paxton’s looming trial on securities fraud charges.

There could be other contenders. Bob Good, chairman of the the hardline House Freedom Caucus, wrote on X: “Mitch McConnell stepping down provides a great opportunity for true conservative leadership in the Senate. Sen Rick Scott would make a great Republican leader.”

Scott, who challenged McConnell for the leadership and failed after the 2022 midterm elections, told reporters: “I think there’s a better way to run the Senate. So we’ll see what happens in the future.”

Perhaps the most honest comment of a day to remember on Capitol Hill came from Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota. Asked who he was backing for the leadership, he told CNN: “I wouldn’t announce it early anyway because I am hoping to get a lot of free dinners out of the Johns.”

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