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The Three Johns

The Shadow Race to Succeed Mitch McConnell

Senate Republicans aren’t quite ready to think about life after McConnell, but his three potential successors have made their interest known.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
From left: Senator John Barrasso, Senate Minority Whip John Thune, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell

Of the 100 members of the U.S. Senate, 10 are named John or Jon.* Three of those Johns—Thune, Cornyn, and Barrasso—also happen to be potential successors to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Two recent incidents, where McConnell froze for several seconds when answering press questions, have ratcheted up the scrutiny on the so-called “three Johns” as people contemplate life after McConnell.

This is not to suggest that a change is imminent. McConnell has no intention of stepping down from his leadership position, and none of the Johns, or any of their Republican colleagues, is likely to immediately challenge the upper chamber’s longest-serving party leader or openly vie for his job.

“There is no jockeying,” said Republican Senator John Boozman, indicating that members have bigger fish to fry; after all, the government runs out of funding at the end of the month. “People are being supportive [of McConnell] and trying to get through this Congress. It’s not like we have a lack of issues to overcome.”

As GOP Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota wryly noted, the three Johns are considered the top potential replacements for McConnell in part because “they’ve never been dumb enough to take him on.” Little wonder: The only senator who has challenged McConnell since he took the top leadership post in 2007, Rick Scott, only received 10 votes in his bid earlier this year.

Because the minority leader is firmly ensconced, any discussion with Republicans of life after McConnell must involve multiple caveats. This is a function not only of his unmatched tenure in leadership but of his “unprecedented control” over his conference, said a former Cornyn aide. “McConnell has been willing to be the villain,” the former aide said. “He’s been willing to take the heat and be wildly unpopular to hold this conference together and carry out the things that needed to be done.” The Republican leader has welcomed his status as “Grim Reaper” for Democratic priorities and even called himself “Darth Vader.”

The next GOP leader will undoubtedly face near-constant comparisons to McConnell, given the defining role that he has played in Republican politics for decades. But each of his potential successors is a formidable politician in his own right.

Thune may be the most obvious contender, as he is the second-highest-ranking Republican in the Senate. It might not be obvious at first glance but the affable, handsome-in-a-politician-way South Dakotan is a king-killer: He defeated then–Majority Leader Tom Daschle in a hotly contested 2004 race. Thune is friendly with colleagues and reporters, and popular among his fellow Republicans. (At 62, he is also the youngest of the three Johns; Cornyn and Barrasso are both 71.) When McConnell recuperated from a concussion earlier this year, Thune temporarily took the reins and led the conference.

“He took on the role and did a great job, and he had support from the leadership team. There was no dissension that we could see,” said Senator Mike Rounds. As his colleague from South Dakota, Rounds said he would support Thune for the leadership post, although he praised all three Johns as “class acts” who “work together.”

“This is a body politic, and if you’ve got the votes, you’re OK. So time will tell, and the conference will make a choice,” Rounds told me. “But personally, I’m in John Thune’s corner, and the other Johns know that.”

But the former Cornyn aide, who did not support any particular John, wondered whether Thune had the “fire in his belly” to fight for the top position in the conference.

“It seems to be priced in that people think it’s going to be Thune,” the former aide said. “I wouldn’t want to get carried away there, because I think Cornyn has a sneaky inside game.”

Cornyn is the only John not currently in leadership, although he previously served as the Republican whip and remains a close ally to McConnell. The senior senator from Texas has recently burnished his cross-partisan bona fides, supporting a bipartisan measure investing in semiconductor production and spearheading the negotiations for gun safety legislation. Cornyn also chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2010 and 2012, helping elect 10 GOP senators who are still in office, and is known for his fundraising prowess.

“He has significant relationships within the conference that date back to recruiting those guys, getting them across the finish line, and orienting them as whip,” the former Cornyn aide said.

However, Thune and Cornyn share an attribute that could complicate their path to leadership: Both have criticized former President Donald Trump and have openly hoped that another candidate would win the GOP presidential nomination in 2024. Thune has endorsed fellow Senator Tim Scott, and there’s no love lost between the mild-mannered South Dakotan and the bombastic former president. Trump called for Thune to be primaried in 2022, and did not endorse him in his reelection bid. Thune did not face a serious challenge in the primary and won the general election handily.

Barrasso, Thune’s colleague from neighboring Wyoming, has vocally supported Trump. Barrasso, who chairs the Senate Republican Conference, is the “strongest on being able to connect to the Trump world,” said a former senior adviser to a top Republican senator. The contest to succeed McConnell could be influenced by external factors—if, say, Trump opposes Thune or Cornyn as majority leader, it could prompt senators on the party’s right flank to back Barrasso.

“I think that Barrasso is the interesting third candidate here,” the former senior adviser said. “Some of those more conservative members of the Senate could step forward and say, ‘Nope, we want somebody who voices more of our positions.’”

Barrasso is a wild card because it isn’t a given that he will run for the top spot. (Though Senator Cynthia Lummis, Barrasso’s colleague from Wyoming, said she had told him that “whatever position he wants to seek, if any, I’m in his corner.”)

Thune had publicly mulled retiring, and so his decision to run for reelection in 2022 indicated an interest in advancing to the position of party leader. Cornyn has also been open about his leadership ambitions, saying in 2021 that “should [McConnell] decide to step down and no longer serve as a leader, I’ve made it no secret that I would like to succeed him.”

“Between Thune and Cornyn, they both have to run for it,” said the former senior adviser. “Whereas Barrasso could do it but doesn’t have to do it if he doesn’t want to.”

Cramer said that he didn’t believe any of the three Johns had a particular edge: “They might have equal edges,” he said with a laugh.

“I think it’ll be a fascinating time, when it comes,” Cramer said, adding that it would be difficult to choose between them. “I generally don’t vote ‘present,’ but you never know.”

*Yes, pedants, we know that Senators Jack Reed and Pete Ricketts technically have the first name “John,” which would put the number at 12. But we are going by what the senators call themselves, and so they are not included in the list of Senate Jo(h)ns.