What if Mitch McConnell loses?
By: Manu Raju and John Bresnahan
July 23, 2014 05:09 AM EDT
It’s a taboo subject among Senate Republicans but one that’s on many senators’ minds: What if Mitch McConnell loses his reelection bid?
There appears to be no clear answer to that question, at least not right now.
In interviews and private conversations with more than half of the 45-member Senate Republican Conference, there is a split over a potential McConnell successor. His top deputy, John Cornyn of Texas, is favored to succeed him, several GOP senators said. But others ranging from John Thune of South Dakota to Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander — or a dark horse — are among those who could get serious consideration in the event of a leadership vacancy.
Cornyn’s ascension to the top spot is hardly a lock. A McConnell loss would mean Republicans would most likely still be in the Senate minority, and some GOP senators would be looking for a fresh face to pull the party out of the political wilderness, set policy priorities and drive the national message.
There also appears to be concern among a handful in the Republican Conference that a Minority Leader Cornyn would be hamstrung by the whims of his fellow Texan and conservative firebrand Ted Cruz, pulling the party further to the right.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), like most senators interviewed for this article, insisted that McConnell would win his race. But when asked if Cornyn would ascend to the leader spot if McConnell lost, Burr said: “The institution always has a way of attracting fresh candidates, and I’m sure it would do the same in that particular case.”
“There’s a lot of respect for John Cornyn, and I think he would certainly be heavily considered,” added Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “But these things never go uncontested.”
With the Senate being the Senate, there is a laundry list of ambitious senators looking to climb the political ladder, meaning if McConnell lost, Cornyn could very well be challenged in an unpredictable, secret leadership election with huge consequences for the future of the GOP.
The parlor game is playing out while McConnell is in a fight for his political life with polls indicating a dead-heat race threatening his nearly three decades in the Senate. While McConnell is widely viewed as the favorite in his race against Grimes, his defeat would mark the second time in less than a year that a GOP leader in Congress lost his seat, following House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s primary stunner this summer. Cantor’s defeat triggered a weeks-long leadership fight in the House, and a McConnell loss — or a Republican failure to take back the Senate — would throw the GOP into further turmoil.
Representatives for McConnell declined to comment for this story.
One top Senate Republican, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Cornyn is not the clear heir apparent to McConnell.
“It would be wide open,” said the senator. “Everything would be up for grabs.”
Cornyn, though, has strong backing from a number of his colleagues in the event he has to run for the job.
“I don’t expect McConnell to lose, but if that were to happen, [Cornyn] would rise very solidly,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). “But I don’t think it’s gonna happen.”
“It would be Cornyn’s — no doubt,” said a GOP rank-and-file senator who asked not to be named talking about a McConnell defeat.
By all accounts, there is little private jockeying at the moment to succeed McConnell, given that no Republican wants to appear as if he were preparing for his leader to lose in the fall and that virtually every GOP senator thinks the Kentuckian will emerge victorious.
Still, if he were to fall, the next GOP leader would need to quickly consolidate his support, as Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) did in June when he rapidly locked up the votes to succeed Cantor as House majority leader. In 2004, when then-Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) lost his reelection bid, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid spent the night frantically lining up backers for the top Democratic spot, circumventing any possible challenge to his rise to the top.
Aside from Cornyn, GOP senators are privately floating a number of other senators to succeed McConnell, including Thune, the Senate Republican Conference chairman, GOP Policy Chairman John Barrasso of Wyoming and Missouri’s Roy Blunt, the No. 5 in Senate GOP leadership.
Moreover, other rank-and-file Republicans have been suggested as potential McConnell successors, including Alexander and Burr himself.
In interviews, all those potential candidates — including Cornyn — dismiss talk that they would try to move up the food chain in the event of a McConnell loss.
“I’m not going to speculate on that because I just don’t think that’s going to happen,” Cornyn said when asked about whether he believed a leadership race would be a wide-open affair. “I think [McConnell is] going to win and win handily.”
“McConnell is going to win,” said Thune. When pressed on what would happen if McConnell were unsuccessful, Thune added, “I’m not going to go there.”
“The Republican Conference believes there isn’t any likelihood that Mitch McConnell isn’t going to be reelected,” Blunt said. “I hear no discussion of any kind, and I’m not interested in speculating.”
A major question is whether Thune or anyone else would actually take on Cornyn if a leadership race does occur, and whether the 53-year-old South Dakota Republican has what it takes to seize the leadership mantle from his 62-year-old colleague, a former Texas judge who ran the Senate GOP’s campaign committee in 2010 and 2012. Thune passed on a challenge to Cornyn as minority whip after Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl retired at the end of the last Congress, instead settling for the No. 3 position.
Last month, several potential challengers were repeatedly mentioned as having the credentials to challenge McCarthy for the House majority leader post, but in the end, they all passed, leaving only extreme long-shot Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) to run. A similar dynamic could develop among Senate Republicans — Cornyn might be beatable, but detractors can’t beat someone with no one. Unless a credible challenger like Thune jumped into the race, Cornyn would be acclaimed Republican leader overwhelmingly.
If McConnell were to win his race but the GOP fell short of the majority, he would likely have the support to remain as minority leader — but he would face growing consternation in the ranks after blowing three straight shots at taking back the chamber.
Similarly, there does seem to be some apprehension about whether Cornyn has what it takes to run the GOP Conference — either in the majority or the minority — and whether Cruz would be “looking over his shoulder,” as one senator put it.
Some Republicans said they worried Cornyn would have to move further and further to the right — dragging the party with him — in order to avoid being politically outflanked by Cruz back home. Cruz’s office declined to comment on “hypotheticals” about whether the Texas freshman would back his senior senator in a leadership race. But a Cruz spokeswoman added that the freshman senator “has the highest respect for John Cornyn and is honored to work with him representing Texas in the U.S. Senate.”
Still, Cornyn is expected to skate to reelection this fall, ensuring he’d be free of reelection pressures in the next Congress and not have to be as sensitive to demands on his right flank as he did for most of last year, particularly as Cruz prepares for a potential run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.
Blunt — while viewed as a potential Senate GOP leader given his past stint as a House Republican leader — is up for reelection in 2016 and may not be eager to have a target on his back if he ends up running the GOP Conference. And Alexander, a Senate institutionalist well-respected by his colleagues, would invite anger from the far right off the Hill given his openness for deal cutting with Reid and the Democrats. Alexander already left the No. 3 spot in leadership in 2011, claiming he would be more able to work with Democrats by serving in the rank and file.
The senators were quick to dismiss questions about their leadership ambitions. Asked if he would run for leader, Burr said: “My wife doesn’t want me to do anything like that.”
Some Republicans laughed off the whole issue, dismissing the threat of McConnell’s defeat as more of a punch line than a serious issue they could be facing after Election Day.
“I heard Everett Dirksen has the inside track,” joked Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), referring to the late Illinois Republican.
Asked if there could be a Senate Majority Leader Rubio in the future, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio laughed and said, “That’s not going to happen either.”
Does that mean Rubio would never seek a spot in GOP leadership? “No,” the potential 2016 hopeful said, before quickly clarifying. “Not party leadership.”
Citing an old “Saturday Night Live” skit, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said: “What if Superman had been a Nazi? … It’s not worth going there.”