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Texas Sen. Cornyn announces run to succeed McConnell as GOP leader

Senator John Cornyn is surrounded by reporters.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who served as Mitch McConnell’s No. 2 in leadership before he was term-limited out of the job five years ago, is citing his experience in that role as he tries to succeed McConnell.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
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Texas Sen. John Cornyn has informed his colleagues that he intends to run for Senate Republican leader, becoming the first senator to announce a campaign for the post since Sen. Mitch McConnell said he would step down from it in November.

Cornyn, who was McConnell’s No. 2 in leadership before term limits forced him out of the job five years ago, cited his experience in that role in a statement announcing his run to fellow senators on Thursday.

But he also is trying to distinguish himself from McConnell, saying, “I believe the Senate is broken — that is not news to anyone.”

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“From experience, I have learned what works in the Senate and what does not,” Cornyn said. “And I am confident Senate Republicans can restore our institution to the essential role it serves in our constitutional republic.”

There has long been speculation that Cornyn, South Dakota Sen. John Thune and Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso — the “three Johns” — would all vie to replace McConnell (R-Ky.) if and when he were to step down.

The longtime leader’s surprise announcement Wednesday that he won’t seek Republicans’ top Senate post after the November election has jump-started that campaign sooner than expected — almost nine months before GOP senators are expected to choose a new leader behind closed doors.

Cornyn, a former Texas attorney general who was first elected to the Senate in 2002, is a prominent member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a popular member of the GOP conference who is widely seen as a steady hand. He has managed to bridge some of the caucus’ deep divides in recent years, while also occasionally negotiating with Democrats, as he did on bipartisan gun legislation in 2022.

Mitch McConnell’s decision punctuates a powerful ideological transition underway in the Republican Party, from Ronald Reagan’s brand of traditional conservatism.

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He is also a prolific fundraiser for the Republican Party, having already brought in a total of $13 million in the 2024 election cycle for incumbents, the party’s Senate campaign arm, and Senate GOP nominees.

In his statement, Cornyn said he believes he has “built a track record of listening to colleagues and seeking consensus, while leading the fight to stop bad policies that are harmful to our nation and the conservative cause.”

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Cornyn said he would work to improve communication, try to move spending bills individually and make an effort to include every member in decisions — a response to some senators’ frequent complaints about massive year-end spending bills and McConnell’s top-down leadership approach.

Both Thune, the current No. 2 Senate Republican, and Barrasso, chair of the Senate Republican Conference, have left the door open to running since McConnell’s announcement, but neither has officially announced a campaign for the job.

Thune told reporters that McConnell’s departure will leave “big shoes to fill,” but that now is a time “to reflect on his service and honor him for that. And then we’ll go from there.”

After Cornyn’s announcement, a spokesman for Thune said that he is reaching out to colleagues to discuss “the future of the Senate Republican Conference and what they would like to see in their next leader,” but that he intends to keep those talks private.

Less than 48 hours after the Uvalde school shooting in Texas, Sen. John Cornyn was tapped to lead gun policy negotiations for the GOP in the Senate.

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Barrasso said Wednesday that he’s focused on the November election and getting a Senate majority. As for leadership decisions, he said: “I’m going to talk to members of the conference, hear what they have to say, listen to them in terms of what direction they want to take.”

Much of the race for leader is likely to take place through phone calls, one-on-one meetings and private gatherings over the next several months. Unlike the House, where both parties vote for speaker in a public — and recently messy — spectacle, leaders in the Senate are chosen in closed-door party meetings by secret ballot.

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Cornyn began reaching out to his fellow senators within hours of McConnell’s announcement.

Republican senators haven’t chosen a new leader since McConnell was elected in 2007 — before most current GOP senators were in office.

It is unclear which of the three “Johns” might have an advantage among their peers.

While Cornyn is well-liked and has drawn attention for his fundraising, Thune has the advantage of incumbency as McConnell’s current deputy. Barrasso has tracked furthest to the right, and was the first of the three to endorse former President Trump for reelection this year.

The Republican leader froze up while answering a reporter’s question for the second time in just over a month, standing silently for around half a minute.

Aug. 30, 2023

Thune and Cornyn have criticized Trump in the past, especially after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump’s supporters. But they endorsed him too as it appeared increasingly likely that he would be the party’s presidential nominee.

Additional candidates can be expected for McConnell’s post, including senators from the wing of the party that is closest to Trump.

Florida Sen. Rick Scott challenged McConnell in 2022 at Trump’s urging, winning 10 votes, and he might run again. Scott has said he is focused on his own reelection bid this year, but has appeared open to running for leader after that.

“I think there’s a better way to run the Senate,” he said after McConnell’s announcement. “So we’ll see what happens.”

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On Thursday, Scott said that he and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) would soon call for a special conference meeting to discuss the party’s future.

The sudden scramble for the next leader comes after McConnell, 82, faced increasing criticism from some in his party who said it was time for a change in leadership. They have criticized his support for huge end-of-year spending bills and aid for Ukraine. A growing number in his conference opposes assisting the country amid Russia’s ongoing assaults, saying the money would be better spent on the U.S.-Mexico border or within the United States.

The only 2024 statewide electoral contest is for Senate and includes Reps. Katie Porter, Barbara Lee and Adam B. Schiff along with former Dodger Steve Garvey.

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McConnell is also at odds with Trump, who he said was “practically and morally responsible” for the Capitol attack. They haven’t spoken since, and Trump frequently bashes McConnell publicly.

The Republican leader acknowledged his critics Wednesday in his Senate floor speech announcing that he would step down from that role. “I know the politics within my party at this particular moment in time,” he said. “I have many faults. Misunderstanding politics is not one of them.”

He also echoed his critics, calling for a “new generation” to take over.

After the announcement, many GOP senators praised McConnell’s legacy, including his role in the Senate confirmation of three conservative Supreme Court justices — though bending Senate norms in ways that many observers criticized.

Other Republicans were more focused on the future.

“This is a good development,” said Missouri’s Sen. Josh Hawley, a frequent McConnell critic. “My question is: Why wait so long?”

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