Mar 28, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Ernst at risk of being boxed out of Senate leadership

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) speaks to reporters after a closed-door lunch meeting with Senate Republicans at the U.S. Capitol October 24, 2023 in Washington, DC.

Sen. Joni Ernst speaks to reporters after a lunch meeting with Senate Republicans at the Capitol in October 2023. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) is at risk of being boxed out from Senate GOP leadership by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) who beat her to the punch in announcing his run for the No. 3 position, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: Ernst is currently the highest-ranking Senate Republican woman, but she could lose her leadership leverage in the middle of the broader GOP shakeup this year.

How we got here: Jumping in early for leadership elections has a clear advantage.

  • Cotton has notched significant support from across the conference — enough that his team is confident about locking it in, according to sources close to the senator.
  • Almost all of the commitments came in before Ernst announced she was running this month, and they have slowed down since.
  • There is still a long way to go, and Cotton will have to work to maintain those commitments.

What to watch: Cotton simultaneously has been in talks with Trump allies about a national security position in a potential future Trump administration.

  • He has been considered to potentially lead the FBI, State or the CIA, according to multiple sources close to Cotton and in Trump's orbit.
  • If Trump wins in November, a Cotton appointment could open the door again for Ernst.

The other side: Ernst is still working behind the scenes to hear from colleagues and persuade them to back her bid. A source close to Ernst said the senator is not afraid of a tough election fight.

  • There is a huge appetite — especially among the more conservative bloc — for a new slate of leaders to make substantial changes to the way things are run in the Senate.
  • "I've never been the establishment's chosen candidate. I've always been that outsider," Ernst told Politico.
  • Those senators will be looking closely at how candidates for these lower leadership positions embrace those ideas, one senior GOP Senate staffer told Axios.

The intrigue: Ernst was upset that Cotton announced his bid for Republican Conference chair without giving her a heads-up.

  • "I know he didn't give many of us a heads-up. So that would have been common courtesy," she told CNN early this month.
  • The two have spoken since and generally have a good relationship, according to sources close to both.
  • Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.) has announced a run for Ernst's current No. 4 position. It is highly unlikely that Ernst would change her mind to try to hold on to her current position, sources said.
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