Are the top candidates to replace McConnell MAGA enough?

Written by on February 29, 2024

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(WASHINGTON) — Former President Donald Trump knows how to influence an election, that much is clear. In the last few years, he has championed down-ballot nominees, wielded extensive influence over primary races and had his fingerprints on the House leadership race.

But Trump is already beginning to leave his MAGA mark on a new sort of Republican race: the race to succeed Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who announced Wednesday that he is stepping down from his leadership role in November after nearly two decades. After the 2024 election, but before newly elected members are sworn in, there will be closed-door Senate Republican Conference meeting in which members will nominate and elect a new leader.

Trump has not yet publicly commented on McConnell’s departure, but the former president’s sway over the party as McConnell has waned in popularity is clear. Many Senate Republicans said on Thursday that they believe a candidate’s ability to work with Trump, and in many cases align with him, is an essential factor in their consideration of who they’ll back during the November contest.

Top-tier contenders cozy up to Trump

Already, top-tier contenders — referred to as the “three Johns” — are trying to cozy up to Trump, leaving many to speculate if they are MAGA enough for the job.

In a statement formally announcing his candidacy for Republican leader, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, touted his Trump bona fides.

“As the Republican Whip, I helped President Trump advance his agenda through the Senate, including passing historic tax reform and remaking our judiciary — including two Supreme Court Justices,” Cornyn said.

In a gaggle with reporters, Cornyn said he spoke to Trump Wednesday — the same day McConnell announced his plans to step down — to make his “intentions” known.

Sen. John Thune, the South Dakota Republican and current GOP whip, has been slightly less overt about his intentions, but a spokesperson said Thursday that Thune is “reaching out to each of his colleagues directly to discuss the future of the Senate Republican Conference and what they would like to see in their next leader.”

Thune issued an endorsement of Trump on Monday after speaking to the former president over the weekend.

“I worked closely with him when he was president last time. You know, I was one of the key negotiators on the Senate Finance Committee on the tax cuts and Jobs Act. We put through, I want to say, 15 judges when I was the whip on the floor under his administration, and so yeah — we’ve got a record of accomplishment, of getting things done for the American people,” Thune said Thursday.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., hasn’t issued a formal statement on his intentions yet either. But on Wednesday he said he would “talk to members of the conference and hear what they have to say and listen to them in terms of what direction they want to take the conference.”

Barrasso’s ties to Trump are well-documented. He is the most outspoken Trump supporter of the “three Johns” and was the first to endorse him, which he did in January.

Other candidates are also expected to throw their hat in the ring in the coming months. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., ran against McConnell for leader in late 2022, and may run again. Some of Scott’s colleagues, including Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana, have already said they’d back him.

Scott is still considering Trump when weighing a potential bid, too.

“President Trump, I’m sure he wants somebody he can work with, so that’s probably what he’ll do. He’ll probably think about all the people who are considering running and whether he feels comfortable he can work with,” Scott said.

Rank-and-file Republicans say Trump is a key factor

It’s nine months until a leadership election — that’s quite a runway. But as contenders for the role begin jockeying for support within their conference, it’s clear a key factor for many will be how closely the candidate is able to work with Trump.

Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., said he’ll be looking to ensure that Senate leadership aligns with the party leader — presumptively Trump.

“I think it’s really important that whoever our next Senate majority leader, shares the same priorities and goals as whoever the Republican president is,” Marshall said. “So it’s important that they share the same priorities.”

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., said he expects Trump would be “very concerned” about who the eventual new leader is.

“He should be involved,” Tuberville said of Trump.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., has asked for a special conference meeting to be called in March for contenders to outline their visions for the future of the conference.

“This is something for the Republican Senate Conference to accomplish,” Johnson said, when asked about the impact Trump might have on that vision.

Johnson said he did not think it would be productive for Trump to weigh in now. But if no consensus is reached before the November election, “Trump might have some influence,” Johnson said.

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