Apr 2, 2024 - Politics & Policy

GOP senators eye mysterious options for leader

Illustration of a person's silhouette standing behind a podium with the U.S. Senate seal.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Senators and staffers have doubts that the two Johns running to replace GOP leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will be the only options, keeping an eye out for a late entry that upends the jockeying of the monthslong campaign.

Why it matters: Former President Trump may not be able to choose the GOP Senate leader, sources tell Axios, but he can derail a candidacy.

  • "My best guess is that someone else will throw their hat in the rings eventually," Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) told Axios last month.
  • "I think there'll be more people in this race," said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). "I think there's a lot of room here."

What to watch: The most likely dark horse candidate is Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who has already been privately urged by Trump to run for leader.

  • It would be a bad look for Daines, as chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), to seem more eager to become leader than focusing on winning the majority for the party, sources have said.
  • But he could become a serious contender overnight if Senate Republicans pick up a multi-seat majority and Trump wins at the top of the ticket.
  • "Chairman Daines is laser-focused on taking back the Senate majority," NRSC communications director Mike Berg told Axios.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) has also been floated as a potential contender, given his failed challenge against McConnell in 2022.

  • Scott will have to first focus on winning re-election in November, which could be harder now that abortion and marijuana measures will be on the ballot in Florida, potentially juicing Democratic turnout.

The bottom line: Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) is currently favored to win the party leader job, according to conversations with Senate sources. Many point to his current No. 2 spot and his opportunities to lead during McConnell's health problems.

  • But Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) has been fervently working behind the scenes and publicly pledging a new style of leadership — such as supporting leader term limits.
  • Cornyn also is known for having strong relationships with many senators and strong fundraising skills.
  • Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) is currently the only candidate for the No. 2 position of Republican whip.
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