Term limits — and the midterm campaign — could scramble the GOP leadership ladder after November.
Sen. John Thune passed on a run for the No. 2 GOP leadership job in 2012. He’s unlikely to do so again this fall.
With Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) term-limited out, the South Dakota senator has all but locked up the whip job ahead of the biggest Senate Republican leadership shakeup in years, according to senators and aides.
Thune has run the GOP’s messaging arm for six years now, cut a $2 million check to the Senate GOP’s campaign committee in 2016 and has developed a record as a bipartisan deal-cutter on the Senate Commerce Committee, which would serve him well in running the Senate floor.
Thune has not officially launched his bid — doing so seven months before an election is taboo — but “he’s made no secret of his interest in this post,” according to a Senate leadership aide. The position also comes with some perks: an ornate office in the Capitol and a full-time security detail.
“There’s no certainties in this business,” Thune said in an interview when pressed on his leadership aspirations. “In most people’s minds, it’s premature to get into that. I’m not going to rule anything out, and, obviously, I’m going to serve the conference if there’s an opportunity there.”
But what happens to the rest of the leadership team remains up in the air as senators quietly assess their options and how best to position themselves after the critical November midterm elections.
If Republicans keep the Senate, then Thune and Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming and Roy Blunt of Missouri would probably secure easy promotions while a vacancy opens at the bottom of the leadership rungs, according to senators and aides.
But if the GOP manages to lose the chamber, a broader scramble could ensue given the large number of ambitious senators elected in 2014.
Referred to as the “bear den” by Senate Republicans, those senators are expected to demand more seats at the leadership table in 2020, or potentially this year if the GOP loses its majority with such a favorable map. Ten Senate Democrats are running for reelection in states won by President Donald Trump.
The most pressing open question is what happens to Cornyn.
He is not seeking a waiver from GOP term limits, which allow a maximum of three full terms in leadership roles except for the job of Republican leader. As a two-time party campaign arm chairman and a top fundraiser, Cornyn is currently the odds-on favorite to succeed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) whenever McConnell steps down from the role — but that could be years from now if McConnell runs for reelection in 2020.
“Most of the conference sees him as sort of a next-generation leader,” said a GOP senator.
Because he’s about to find himself on the outside of the GOP leadership circle, some Republicans have suggested that Cornyn may be given a Senate chairmanship on the Intelligence, Judiciary or Finance panels.
But such a move would circumvent Senate Republican rules and leapfrog other senators. Right now, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is in line to become Finance chairman after 2018, which would allow Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to headthe Judiciary panel. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) is eligible for two more years at Intel, and Cornyn is low in seniority on the committee.
“That seems kind of wild. We’ve got other people whose careers are involved. I’m looking forward to serving out my time as whip,” Cornyn said. “And we’ll see what the future brings.”
There are also whispers of a contested race between Barrasso and Blunt for Thune’s current job as Republican Conference chairman. Barrasso now serves in the fourth-ranking spot as the Republican policy chairman, and Blunt is in fifth as the conference vice chair.
Neither would say explicitly what role they would seek after the election, but aides familiar with the dynamics expect them to try to avoid a contest against each other.
“I enjoy serving the conference and would want to continue to do that,” said Barrasso, the most conservative member of GOP leadership.
To fill the job of vice chair likely to be left open by Blunt, McConnell is hoping to recruit a female lawmaker to be in leadership, according to people familiar with his thinking. Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) are two early favorites.
Then there’s the “bear den,” the large group of senators elected in 2014 who have outsize ambitions to remake the Senate GOP. At present, there is little appetite among them to challenge sitting members of leadership, but if the current team merely plays musical chairs, it could stoke some unrest in the rank and file over a permanent ruling class.
Republicans said privately that the “bear den” could revolt after the 2018 or 2020 elections and accelerate a large-scale turnover, depending on whether the GOP loses the White House or the Senate in the next two cycles.
Several members of the 2014 class said in interviews that they will concentrate on their reelection races in 2020 before seeking a seat at the leadership table. Asked whether he would pursue the job of chairing the policy committee, the wonky Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said: “I’m not pursuing that.”
“I have a campaign to concentrate on,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa.). “At some point would I like to be in leadership? I would.”
Other GOP senators from that class are Capito, David Perdue of Georgia, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Thom Tillis of North Carolina. Cotton and Perdue are both close to Trump and have taken on increasing prominence in the conference.
Gardner is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Both he and Tillis, his vice chairman, are expected to face tough reelection campaigns.
“I really haven’t personally spent much time on it,” Tillis said of his leadership aspirations.
The Senate GOP’s campaign arm job will also be open, though it’s not viewed as an enviable post for the 2020 election cycle, which is almost certain to be a brutal fight for control of the Senate.
Republicans have discussed the possibility of Mitt Romney taking the job after he wins election in Utah; his national profile would be a boon for GOP fundraising efforts. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), another prodigious fundraiser, seems more interested in cutting bipartisan deals than ousting his colleagues.
Some Republicans are also beginning to talk about Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), who was just elected in 2016. His office declined to comment, but two GOP sources said he’s an early favorite for the job — and has more seniority than Romney, who hasn’t even won the Republican nomination in his state yet.
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