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Trump Is the Most Important Vote in Senate Leadership

The first candidate to throw his hat in the ring, John Cornyn, called Donald Trump beforehand.

President Donald Trump points
Former President Donald Trump hasn’t publicly weighed in on the Senate Republican leadership race ... yet. Alex Brandon/AP

As Senate Republicans prepare to pick their next leader, some lawmakers are worried it won’t be fellow senators with the most important voice but Donald Trump.

Asked what role the former president should play in the race, Sen. Chuck Grassley gave a decisive, “Nothing.” Sen. Bill Cassidy said Trump “should play no role whatsoever.”

But the right flank of the party has felt for years that outgoing Leader Mitch McConnell was out of step with Trump’s view of the world — something the Kentuckian acknowledged himself. And some of them are cheering on the prospect of a leader with a better relationship with the former president.

Trump “should be involved,” Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama said. “He shouldn’t have a vote in it, obviously, but he should be very concerned about who and when.”

Trump has yet to weigh in publicly, although he reportedly encouraged National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Steve Daines to make a bid. But his influence is clear. Sen. John Cornyn, one of the “Three Johns” considered top contenders for the role, said he called Trump on Wednesday evening to tell him he planned to run for leader before publicly announcing it Wednesday.

“I thought I should call him, which I did, and tell him what I intended to do,” Cornyn said, adding that he thinks they have a “good relationship based on a shared desire to fix what’s broken in this country.”

Trump asked him who else was interested, according to Cornyn, who insisted he’s not “seeking endorsements from people outside the Senate.” He nonetheless mentioned Trump in his bid announcement, noting that “as the Republican whip, I helped President Trump advance his agenda.”

Sen. Rick Scott, who has been an outspoken McConnell critic and ran to replace him in 2022, said he also talked to Trump this week. However, Scott said the conversation was “just that McConnell was leaving.”

Trump has long had a strained relationship with McConnell, who is one of fewer than 20 Republican senators who have not yet endorsed his 2024 presidential bid. The “Johns” and other potential contenders have: John Thune just a few days ago, Cornyn after the New Hampshire primary, John Barrasso in early January and Scott in November. Daines was the earliest of the group, endorsing Trump last April.

At the very least, some Republicans want to make sure priorities are aligned between the next leader and Trump. “It’s real important that whoever our next Senate majority leader is shares the same priorities and goals as whoever the Republican president is,” said Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas.

As long as McConnell stays through his term — not all senators want him to — the vote will take place after the November elections via secret ballot, which could diminish Trump’s ability to sway the race, unlike during the public voting that took place in the House speaker’s races.

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When asked if Trump should weigh in on the race now, Sen. Ron Johnson, who supported Scott in his 2022 run, said “No.” Johnson added he didn’t “want a beauty contest. I want us to have to go through this process and see which leaders emerge.” He is pushing for a special conference on the matter in mid-March.

Some senators suggested Trump’s impact would be minimal. “I just don’t think he’ll have any effect on what we do,” Sen. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming said. She added, “This is all about the Senate and Senate dynamics.”

Others were more willing to admit the obvious. Sen. Marco Rubio said that alignment with Trump will “be a factor in the leadership race, no doubt about it.” Whether senators want to acknowledge the Trump sway or not, Rubio said “it won’t be irrelevant.”

Nuha Dolby, Claire Heddles and Casey Murray are NOTUS reporters and Allbritton Journalism Institute fellows.