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McConnell replacement race kicks off earlier than expected. Is John Thune Next?

Sen. Mitch McConnell’s surprise Wednesday announcement that he will step down from leadership in November has launched a high stakes race to replace the longest-serving Senate party leader.

Why it matters: All eyes are on the “three Johns” — GOP Sens. John Barrasso, John Cornyn and John Thune — who are long viewed as the most likely to take up the mantle. But former President Trump looms large.

Any future leader is certain to inherit a conference divided between its old guard and a newer, emboldened right flank of Trump allies.

Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) is viewed by many in D.C. circles as the most obvious heir with his current No. 2 position, moderate views and fundraising prowess. Trump endorsed Thune’s challenger in 2022, and Thune only endorsed Trump a couple days before McConnell’s announcement. Thune’s position in leadership could also be viewed as a downside for senators wanting a fresh slate post-McConnell.

Senate GOP Conference Chair John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) has a strong relationship with Trump that could give him an advantage.

Barrasso was the second senator to endorse Trump, and has also endorsed a slate of the most conservative Senate candidates like Kari Lake, Jim Banks and Bernie Moreno.”What I’m focused on is the election that’s going to come up in November for president, for the Senate. That’s my focus,” Barrasso told reporters Wednesday, dodging questions about a leadership run.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) does not currently have a leadership role — which he could try to play to his benefit in any leadership race after conservative discontent with the recent border deal and foreign aid package.
He has been critical of Trump in the past, but unlike Thune, never backed any of the former president’s primary challengers and endorsed the likely GOP nominee in January.

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