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What McConnell's exit as Senate GOP leader means for tech

Four people wearing suits and ties under a domed ceiling

McConnell, Barrasso, Thune and Cornyn in 2017. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's successor could bring meaningful tech experience to the helm of the Republican conference.

Why it matters: A tech-savvy GOP leader could help elevate certain issues already prioritized by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, namely artificial intelligence and children's online safety regulation.

Context: McConnell never had a particular interest in tech, hewing more to the traditional conservative line of thinking that government should not meddle with private companies.

Driving the news: McConnell on Wednesday announced he will step down as the head of Senate Republicans after the election, but plans to remain in Congress.

Here's who's likely in the race for GOP leader and where they stand on tech:

1. Sen. John Thune has long been involved in tech and telecom policy, previously leading the Senate Commerce Committee and spearheading bills on broadband, privacy and more.

  • He's thought of as a faithful Republican, but someone who is thoughtful about tech issues and has worked with Democrats on tech and telecom issues for most of his Senate career.
  • In the early days of the techlash, Thune summoned tech leaders to the Capitol and grilled them with tough questions.
  • Most recently, he's worked on AI, privacy and algorithmic transparency regulation; getting more into the weeds of tech policy than most senior GOP leaders.
  • Back in 2022, Thune voted against the CHIPS and Science Act, which McConnell supported.

2. Sen. John Cornyn is a well-known China hawk who supports boosting U.S. investments in science and tech to remain competitive.

  • He helped shape and pass the CHIPS and Science Act.
  • He's grilled social media executives, particularly TikTok CEO Shou Chew for the app's impact on children as well as data sharing concerns with China.
  • Cornyn is a co-sponsor of the bipartisan Platform Accountability and Transparency Act, which would require social media companies to share data with the public and researchers.

3. Sen. John Barrasso, the No. 3 Senate Republican, is an energy guy, first and foremost.

  • But he's used his perch atop the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to focus on tech issues such as research security and U.S. competitiveness with China.
  • In September, the committee held a hearing on recent advances in AI, centered on the Energy Department's role in the space.
  • He's involved in rural telecoms issues, introducing the CLOSE THE GAP Act in September to try to streamline the permitting process to increase access to broadband on federal land.
  • Barrasso also voted against the CHIPS and Science Act.
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