McConnell’s No. 2 weighs future as Trump reshapes Senate GOP

McConnell’s No. 2 weighs future as Trump reshapes Senate GOPMarch 25, 2021

John Thune could eventually succeed Mitch McConnell as Senate GOP leader. But first the second-ranked Senate Republican has to decide whether to run for reelection — with Donald Trump prepared to stand in his way.

As fellow GOP senators like Jerry Moran of Kansas or John Boozman of Arkansas announce their 2022 campaigns, usually with the backing of the former president, Thune is taking his time.

“In this day and age, these campaigns are so long. And I think they start way too early,” the South Dakota Republican said in an interview on Wednesday, noting he usually waits until the fall to announce his reelection bids. “We’re moving forward doing all the things that you do. And at some point, we’ll make everything official.”

Of course, that sounds a little like two GOP senators, Roy Blunt of Missouri and Rob Portman of Ohio, who sent all the right signals about running again — until they bowed out. Given his still-bright future in the party and $13 million campaign stash, colleagues are certain Thune runs again.

But his decision looms as the Senate GOP nears a serious crossroads, with five incumbents announcing their retirements and Trump waiting to engage in multiple Republican primaries as he tries to reshape the party’s Senate conference in his image. Several other senators are undecided on running again.

Thune acknowledged that the state of the Senate has nosedived during his 16 years in the chamber, which began when he shocked the political world and defeated former Democratic Leader Tom Daschle in 2004. He fears that things could become only more miserable for the GOP minority if Democrats kill the filibuster.

“We’re losing a ton of talent, a ton of experience and expertise. And so, you know, you hate to see quality people leave. And if the Democrats pursue the course they’re on right now and try and do everything by pure majority rule, obviously, it won’t be a fun place to be,” he said. “It’s probably as challenging today as it’s ever been, given the political environment.”

Trump’s vow to campaign against him doesn’t visibly ruffle Thune, a lanky former basketball player. “It’s not something I’m weighing heavily one way or the other,” the 60-year-old said. He’s laughed off Trump’s attacks on him, advising his party to avoid revolving around one person and focus on issues.

But running for reelection against a vengeful former president wouldn’t be ideal even if Thune would be the heavy favorite. And Trump whisperer Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is trying to clear the runway for Thune to launch a campaign without interference from the former president, lobbying Trump to lay off.

“I don’t know what President Trump is going to do in terms of primary endorsements. But I would hope he’ll look closely at Sen. Thune. He’s a great guy,” Graham said. “It just matters what [Thune] wants to do. I hope he runs. I think he’s been a great senator.”


Thune isn’t the only Republican whose future is sparking intraparty chatter: Kentucky Republicans are moving to change the state’s Senate appointment rules to avoid a Democratic replacement for McConnell, a move supported by McConnell but vetoed by the governor. Some Republican senators have reviewed a story that ran in The Intercept about possible replacements for McConnell but privately say the GOP leader is merely consolidating his legacy, not crafting an exit strategy.

Allies say McConnell is certain to stay in office into 2023, in part to break Mike Mansfield’s record as longest-serving Senate leader of all time. Asked Wednesday about his plans to stay on as GOP leader in the future, McConnell would only say: “That’s a decision I make every two years.”

McConnell was reelected to a six-year term last fall but has tangled with Trump after the former president’s campaign to overturn the election and what the senator called Trump’s “dereliction of duty” in not helping protect the Capitol.

If Thune were to surprise his party and retire early, or if McConnell stepped down as leader before 2026, their departures would hollow out an already-reeling Republican conference. The five Republicans planning to leave after next year all play prominent roles for the party, with Blunt serving as its No. 4 Senate leader.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said in an interview on Wednesday she plans to run to succeed Blunt as the Republican Policy Committee chair. She is currently the No. 5 GOP leader, meaning that there will be an elected leadership vacancy next fall.

Blunt’s not alone in leaving shoes to fill. Retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.) is the Banking Committee’s top Republican. Retiring Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) holds that senior GOP spot on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions panel, while Portman occupies it on the Homeland Security panel and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) on the Appropriations Committee.

Strident Trump supporter Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is likely to replace either Burr or Portman as the top Republican on one of the committees they’re vacating after this Congress. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who voted to convict Trump, is in line for the party’s top appropriations slot.

The retiring quintet might be joined by other senior Republicans. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) is undecided on running again, as is top Senate Judiciary Committee Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa. Grassley is raising money but said that doesn’t reflect that he’s decided to run.

“The reason I’m going to make a decision this fall is: One year is long enough to campaign, but if I do run for reelection, one year is not enough to raise money,” Grassley said on Wednesday.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who voted to convict Trump in his impeachment trial, has signaled she is running again but not yet made an official announcement. Trump has promised to campaign against her, too, but she won reelection in 2010 as a write-in candidate and her state’s new voting rules have eased her path in 2022.

Then there’s Thune, who has basically ruled out a run for president as “not something I aspire to do.” But he is still interested in one day being Senate Republican leader if and when McConnell ever goes: “You don’t rule anything out.” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a former whip and party campaign chair, is also in the mix for that job.

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said that when it’s time for someone to succeed McConnell, he will support Thune. And he said that no matter what Trump does and who runs against his South Dakota colleague, Thune will be OK.

“He can’t take anything for granted. Nobody can. … But he’s the right guy for the job,” Rounds said. “If he decides, and I think he will decide, to run for reelection … he’ll have good, solid support.”

The Thune-Trump conflict stems from Thune panning Trump’s baseless claims of widespread voter fraud and quipping that any challenges to the election would “go down like a shot dog” in the Senate. Trump responded that Thune would get a primary challenge and stumped for South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) to jump in against him, but Noem demurred.

Given the small size of the state’s population, any challenger to Thune would start with a small following and an uphill climb unless Trump truly threw his weight into the race.

With Trump out of the picture, for now, Thune is enjoying his days helping lead the battle against President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on the Senate floor. Perhaps if that dynamic persists, the decision to run for reelection will get a lot easier for the genial South Dakotan.

“It’s a good feeling,” Thune said of working to counter Democrats instead of answering questions about Trump every day. “You have to play defense sometimes, but I’m much more comfortable playing offense.”

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