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John Barrasso, Mitch McConnell, John Thune, John Cornyn
For now, the top candidates to take over as Senate Republican leader are John Barrasso, John Thune and John Cornyn. Alex Brandon/AP

The Future of the Republican Senate Is in John’s Hands

With Mitch McConnell leaving leadership, what’s next for Senate Republicans?

After almost two decades, Mitch McConnell is on his way out as leader of the Senate Republicans. Which means it may finally be time for a John.

“I mean, at this point, we all know who’s interested,” Sen. J.D. Vance said. “I plan to support John.”

Much can and will change between now and the expected leadership elections in November, but for now, the top contenders to lead the Senate GOP are the “Three Johns”: Minority Whip John Thune of South Dakota, Conference Chairman John Barrasso of Wyoming and Texas’ John Cornyn, who previously served as whip.

McConnell’s decision to step down after 17 years in leadership will inevitably move the party more in line with former President Donald Trump. All three leading contenders have endorsed Trump in the primary — McConnell has not — and, to varying degrees, back his philosophy. But they’re also all longtime senators who don’t necessarily match the insurgent wing of the conference, which means there’s plenty of drama to come.

“Some of the people who are opposed to McConnell are likely going to be opposed, at least at first blush, to either Thune or Cornyn,” Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina said Wednesday, predicting some Republicans would back their own candidate only to lose and draw out the process.

“You’re never going to satisfy, there’s always going to be a handful of people who think they can do it better,” he added. “The one thing that they all have in common is they virtually never had a management position or a leadership position, so they don’t understand how difficult the job is.”

Senators were mostly noncommittal on who they’d back for the next leader this fall. No senator has put themselves forward, and most have not thrown their support behind anyone specific yet. But their answers gave some clues as to what Republicans want: more listening, more power with committee chairs, and, for some, more alignment with Trump.

“Somebody that can work with President Trump if he wins, somebody that has the confidence of the conference and, here’s the good news, there’s a lot of good choices,” as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham put it.

“The Three Johns are often mentioned,” Graham said. “There may be other people who are interested, but God bless anybody who wants to do this job. It’s a hard job.”

The Johns have varying levels of allegiance with Trump. Thune initially endorsed South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott for president, and only officially backed the former president earlier this week. Of the three, Barrasso is the most conservative and vocally aligned with Trump.

Cornyn is seen as most in line of the three with McConnell’s foreign policy vision. He’s the only John to have voted in favor of the emergency national security spending bill, sent to the House without border provisions attached. He’s also the only one to have backed other bipartisan measures such as the CHIPS and Science Act and the gun safety measure passed in 2022.

Those stances may lead to a more conservative challenger coming from outside of leadership. Several Republicans floated Sen. Rick Scott, who challenged McConnell in 2022, to make another run for Senate leadership. Even Rep. Bob Good, chair of the House Freedom Caucus, said the Florida senator “would make a great Republican leader.”

Scott, in fact, nearly offered himself for the job: “When I ran against McConnell back in November 2022, I put out a statement of how I felt we ought to be governed, and that’s exactly what I believe.” So, is he planning on running? Scott said that his focus is on his reelection campaign, although he did not fully reject the possibility of throwing his hat in the ring.

A few senators were ready to publicly back a potential leader candidate.

Sen. Cynthia Lummis said she’s backing Barrasso, her fellow Wyoming Republican.

“I’m gonna wait and see what John Barrasso wants to do,” she said. “And whatever John Barrasso wants to do, I’m going to support him.”

Sen. Mike Rounds said he’s been behind Thune, his fellow South Dakotan, “from day one.”

“He’s my seatmate, so we’ve worked together for more than 30 years,” Rounds said. “He is consistent, he cares deeply about this institution. He’s proven himself to be very amenable to finding the right path forward, and he’s a very principled individual and that’s what you want in a leader.”

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Unlike state counterparts for Barrasso and Thune, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz isn’t committing to Cornyn. “There are a number of my colleagues who are expected to put their names forward. And I look forward to the conversation,” Cruz said.

Most are keeping their choice quiet for now, waiting to hear what the potential candidates’ plans are for leadership, in particular for moving power away from leadership and back toward regular order and committee work.

“I wouldn’t announce it early anyway, because I’m hoping to get a lot of free dinners out of the Johns,” North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer said with a laugh. “No, I’m just kidding, a little.”

Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville said he’s looking at the Johns, but also the options beyond them.

“They all have their strengths, but I think there’s gonna be somebody out there, too, that is not in that three, that’s going to have an opportunity to put their hat in the ring that could emerge as a winner,” he said, adding that he doesn’t know who that would be. “Whoever that leader is has got to get us all together. I mean, this is the most important election for Republicans in our lifetime, not just the Senate but also the presidency, so we’ve got to be on the same page.”

Katherine Swartz and Casey Murray are NOTUS reporters and Allbritton Journalism Institute fellows. Oriana González is a reporter at NOTUS.