Who would replace Mitch McConnell if he stands down?

Should the Kentucky senator decide to step down as Senate minority leader, his most likely successor would be one of the ‘three Johns’

Andrew Feinberg
Washington DC
Monday 04 September 2023 14:47 EDT
Mitch McConnell appears to freeze again as he is asked about running for re-election

A pair of as-yet unexplained health incidents involving Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have set tongues buzzing in Washington about who might succeed the KentuckyRepublican should he stand down from his leadership post — or from the Senate seat he has held since 1984.

Mr McConnell, who has represented the Bluegrass State in the upper chamber longer than any other senator in US history, is the second-most senior senator, coming in behind his GOP colleague from Iowa, Charles Grassley, and ahead of the longest-serving Democrat in the chamber, Dianne Feinstein of California.

He’s also the longest-serving party floor leader in Senate history, having been elected by his GOP peers in 2006 after the retirement of former Tennessee Senator Bill Frist.

Mr McConnell held the minority leader’s role until Republicans seized the Senate majority in 2015, and kept his leadership post after Democrats retook control of the chamber in 2021.

Despite a half-hearted challenge from Florida Senator Rick Scott at the start of this Congress, Mr McConnell was easily re-elected to his post in January, besting the previous record set by former Senator Mike Mansfield, a Democrat from Montana who led his party in the chamber for 16 years.

But the venerable Kentuckian’s future longevity in his role is now under question after a bizarre incident at a press conference in his home state last week.

In the middle of the 30 August session, a reporter asked him whether he plans to seek re-election to an eighth term in the 2026 general election.

But instead of responding, he froze, his eyes fixed forward, unresponsive even to an aide who drew close to ask him if he’d heard the reporter’s query. After a moment, he was escorted away from the lectern where he’d been speaking but later returned to answer more questions.

The incident was the second time the senator had appeared unresponsive in the last two months. Earlier in the summer, Mr McConnell stopped mid-sentence at a Capitol Hill press conference and had to be led away by colleagues.

After last week’s incident, the Senate’s attending physician, Dr Brian Monahan, issued a statement attributing the incident to the senator being dehydrated and lightheaded, and said it was a consequence of a concussion Mr McConnell suffered earlier this year after falling at a Washington, DC hotel.

“Occasional lightheadedness is not uncommon in concussion recovery and can also be expected as a result of dehydration,” he said.

The Kentucky Republican has not signalled any intention of resigning from his seat or stepping down as the Senate’s GOP leader, but should he choose the latter course, a number of possible replacements are waiting in the wings.

Known as the “three Johns,” each has served in senior positions within the Republican conference and is well-liked by his fellow GOP senators.

One is the current number-two GOP member, Senator John Thune of North Dakota.

John Thune of North Dakota is currently the number two Republican in the Senate

Mr Thune, 62, is nearly a full two decades younger than the 81-year-old Kentuckian, and has served in the upper chamber since defeating then-Democratic leader Tom Daschle in 2004.

The former House member had reportedly considered retiring from Congress, but he ended up winning his re-election race easily last year.

Another contender to replace Mr McConnell is Texas Senator John Cornyn, a 71-year-old veteran of the chamber who was Mr Thune’s predecessor as GOP whip but was forced from that role by the conference’s internal term limits.

A former Texas attorney general and supreme court justice, Mr Cornyn has long served as a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He previously chaired the Senate Republicans’ campaign committee and is considered a competent manager and fundraiser.

Unlike his junior counterpart, Senator Ted Cruz, Mr Cornyn is generally well-liked and has a history of working across the aisle on thorny matters. Last year, Mr McConnell tapped him to lead the GOP side in negotiations over what became the first gun control legislation to be signed in to law in decades following the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

John Cornyn is the senior US senator from Texas

The third of the “three Johns” is the least senior of the three, Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming.

A member of Mr McConnell’s leadership team, Mr Barrasso currently serves as the Senate GOP conference chair, third in rank after the Kentuckian and Mr Thune.

While all three have extremely conservative voting records, the Wyoming Senator has one attribute the other candidates lack: a good relationship with their party’s de facto leader, former president Donald Trump.

John Barrasso has a good relationship with the Republican Party’s de facto leader, Donald Trump

But thus far, it’s unlikely that any will get a shot at the party’s top Senate post. Mr McConnell has not signalled any desire to step away from his job, and his allies have flooded the airwaves with statements of support in recent days.

One of his GOP colleagues, Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota, said on Sunday on CNN that Mr McConnell appeared “in good shape” when the two men spoke over the weekend.

Mr Rounds expressed confidence in the Capitol physician’s assessment of his colleague, calling Dr Brian P Monahan “sharp” and stating that “if he says ... Mitch is ready to go, then Mitch is ready to go”.

Pressed on whether the GOP veteran should be more open about his health, the South Dakota senator replied: “Mitch is sharp and he is shrewd. He understands what needs to be done. I’ll leave it up to him as to how he wants to discuss that with the American public, but there’s no doubt in my mind that he is perfectly capable of continuing on at this stage of the game, and he’s got a good team around him.”

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