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Potential candidates who could replace McConnell as Senate GOP leader

Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), John Cornyn (R-Texas) and John Barrasso (R-Wy.) are likely candidates.

Published: February 28, 2024 11:00pm

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell's decision to step down from his leadership role in November has raised speculation as to who will be able to unite the caucus and win the closed-door election to become the next top Republican.

McConnell is the longest serving Senate Republican leader in U.S. history.

Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wy., are likely candidates, given that they each currently have leadership roles. Thune is Republican whip while Ernst is Senate Republican Policy Committee chair. Barrasso is the Senate Republican Conference chairman. 

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the Republican whip from 2013-2019, is also a possible candidate for GOP leader. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said he expects Cornyn and Thune to run but he's not sure about Barrasso, according to an unverified report.

After McConnell's announcement on Wednesday, Barrasso said that his "focus" right now is on the November election for president and control of the House and Senate.

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., challenged McConnell for leader in 2022 but lost. At the time, he was chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. In 2022, Scott had the support of former President Trump, now the likely 2024 GOP presidential nominee, who endorsed him for the job. Scott might run again for GOP leader after McConnell's decision to step down. 

“We need new leadership in the Senate that represents our voters and the issues we were sent here to fight for,” Scott said in a press release after McConnell's announcement, raising speculation that he might run to replace him. “This is an opportunity to refocus our efforts on solving the significant challenges facing our country and actually reflect the aspirations of voters.”

To date, McConnell has declined to publicly endorse Trump for 2024. He was asked on Tuesday about the possibly of an endorsement coming soon but he dodged the question.

Despite that, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said on Wednesday that she doesn't think former President Trump, the likely 2024 GOP presidential nominee, played any role in forcing McConnell's decision to step down in November.

McConnell said he still plans to finish out his current Senate term, which ends in January 2027.

"We’ve now 86’d: McCarthy, McDaniel, McConnell," Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., wrote on X. "Better days are ahead for the Republican Party."

Former Congressman Pete Hoekstra, the chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, 

Ira Shapiro, a former U.S. Senate staffer and author of "Broken: Can the Senate Save Itself and the Country?predicted that Trump would handpick the next Senate GOP leader if he wins the general election in 2024.

"If Biden is re-elected, several members of McConnell's leadership team are possible successors, with John Thune probably the most likely to emerge. But everything depends on the presidential election," said Shapiro, who worked for Democratic senators including Jacob Javits, Gaylord Nelson, Abraham Ribicoff, Thomas Eagleton, Robert Byrd, and Jay Rockefeller. 

"If Trump wins, he will pick the next Senate Republican leader, and it will be a MAGA Republican—such as JD Vance or Marsha Blackburn—who would be slavishly subservient to him," he added.

Sens. Josh Hawley, R-Mo.. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., Ron Johnson, R-Wis., or Ted Cruz, R-Texas, would be other conservative allies that Trump might endorse for the leadership position.

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