Senate Republicans kick off their food fight for next leader

The fight to succeed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is on, with the “Three Johns”—Texan John Cornyn, South Dakota’s John Thune, and Wyoming’s John Barrasso— lining up against the MAGA wing of the party to determine the future of the Republican conference. 

In the war of the Johns, Cornyn was first out of the gate to announce his bid and has been aggressively pursuing the top spot. 

“I’ve been telling people for a long time now that I was interested in succeeding Mitch,” Cornyn told Punchbowl News. “It’s no secret.” 

Cornyn went on to point out that he called “dibs” on the job directly to Thune when Thune entered the leadership team as minority whip. Cornyn is nothing if not baldly transparent in his ambitions, and he’s not subtle about his politics, which is one reason he’s the likeliest of “The Johns” to rise to the top. The others haven’t really been tearing the place up with ambition or toadying like Cornyn.

The Texas senator has been instrumental in fighting everything from sensible gun measures intended to protect survivors of domestic violence to any kind of immigration reform. In fact, he’s defined the whole strategy of GOP obstruction on immigration with his infamous “Cornyn Con,” continually participating in bipartisan talks on immigration reform and always blocking any legislation that emerges. Cornyn’s biggest challenge in getting the job is going to be his long-standing allegiance to Mitch McConnell, and the MAGA crowd is set to exploit it.

While Cornyn preens, an extremist group of senators wants the Senate to be more like the MAGA-happy House, and they are itching to get their hands on leadership.

A group of 10 of them—including Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, Roger Marshall of Kansas, J.D. Vance of Ohio, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Mike Lee of Utah, and Rick Scott of Florida—struck Thursday with a letter to Barrasso in his capacity as chair of the conference, demanding a meeting later his month to “develop a mission statement and goals” for the GOP conference, as well as a “process to elect” their new leader.

One of them, Rick Scott, already tried and failed to take down McConnell—but he’s still among the names being floated by the hard right. His MAGA bona fides are certainly established. In his ongoing fight against McConnell, Scott released a plan to “rescue” America last year that would sunset Social Security and Medicare, along with a lot of crazy fascist stuff straight out of the Trump playbook. He was forced to revise at least the Social Security part of that plan.

Then there’s talk of Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton throwing his hat in the ring. Among his lowlights: accusing Supreme Court nominee (and now Justice) Ketanji Brown Jackson of being a Nazi sympathizer, maybe? “The last Judge Jackson left the Supreme Court to go to Nuremberg and prosecute the case against the Nazis,” he said on the floor during the debate on her nomination. “This Judge Jackson might have gone there to defend them.”

Just to inject a little more crazy into the mix, honorable mention has to go to Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. His dubious champion, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., is as hungry for headlines as ever. 

“We need representation who will prioritize American wellness over all else,” Kennedy tweeted. “I believe @RandPaul would be an incredible successor. He’s shown great judgment and has the grit to put hardworking Americans first.” That’s one vote for Paul. 

Lurking behind the GOP drama (as always) is Donald Trump, who has put his thumb on the scale with his pick, Montana Sen. Steve Daines. Trump has been quietly pushing Daines to run for the job since even before McConnell announced he was stepping down, according to sources who spoke to Axios. Daines supposedly “bridges” the MAGA wing and the establishment crowd. He’s currently heading up the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and insists that his focus is on regaining control of the Senate in November. But he hasn’t said no to vying for the top job, either.

You can bet that if Trump succeeds in getting Daines crowned, he will burn any remaining bridges with the withering establishment wing and MAGA will rule. That’s likely to be the case no matter who wins the job, though, as all of the contenders are on board the Trump 2024 train.

In the end, that’ll be McConnell’s legacy. He refused to stand up to Trump when it mattered the most and he was the most powerful Republican in a position to fight. As Kerry Eleveld wrote, he is responsible for helping the destruction of the establishment wing of the Republican Party.

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