Feb 29, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Trump pushes Steve Daines to succeed McConnell as GOP's Senate leader

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) arrives for a Senate Republican meeting

Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) arrives for a Senate Republican meeting. Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Former President Trump quietly has been urging Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) to run for GOP Senate leader — and was doing so even before Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced he was stepping aside as leader, two sources familiar with the situation tell Axios.

Why it matters: Much of the speculation about McConnell's successor has focused on the "three Johns" — Thune, Cornyn and Barrasso — but Trump's involvement signals there could be a long race for the leadership post ahead.

  • Trump is consolidating his power over the GOP and Republicans in Congress, and his blessing — along with a triumphant November election — could position Daines for the Senate leadership job when the new Congress starts in January.
  • Daines, who also is chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has demurred about the possibility of succeeding McConnell — but hasn't said no.
  • Daines "appreciates the president's support but needs to focus on taking back the Senate" in November, one source familiar with his thinking told Axios.

Between the lines: Daines was an early endorser of Trump's 2024 bid for president, and is leading Republicans' effort to recruit and support Senate candidates — and try to avoid nasty intraparty battles in primaries.

  • Despite endorsing some unsuccessful, fringe candidates in recent elections, Trump also has been a GOP kingmaker.
  • It's unclear whether Trump would consider other candidates for the party's leader in the Senate — though he also is a fan of Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), a source familiar with the former president's thinking said.
  • Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) announced his bid for the leadership post on Thursday. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Barrasso also are considered to be top contenders.

Zoom out: Republicans have a relatively friendly Senate map for their efforts to reclaim the Senate in this year's elections.

  • Ten seats held by Democrats are rated as lean Democrat to solid Republican by Cook Political Report. But other than West Virginia, none of the Democrat-held seats will be easy to flip.
  • If Daines can lead Republicans to a strong majority in November, it could set him up for a leadership run.
  • He has recruited Trump allies such as Kari Lake in Arizona as well as Republicans such as Trump critic Larry Hogan, a former governor in deep blue Maryland.
  • Hogan could make a contest out of a Senate race long considered to be an easy win for Democrats.

This story has been updated with additional context and details.

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