The longest-serving leader in the history of the Senate, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), still has three years left in a legislative career that has spanned four decades.
But with questions about McConnell’s health proving to be stubbornly enduring—and rumors about his possible retirement persistently floating around Capitol Hill—the race to replace him as Senate Republican leader is already on.
Senators aren’t so crass as to openly campaign for a position that isn’t yet open. Trying to nudge McConnell out the door, as Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) did at the start of this Senate session—is widely seen as counterproductive.
But McConnell’s reign will end at some point—perhaps far sooner than in January 2027—and those familiar with the early machinations of his would-be successors assure The Daily Beast that senators are quietly preparing themselves to make their cases.
“The race is happening,” one senior GOP aide familiar with the situation told The Daily Beast last week. “It’s happening under the surface, but it’s already ongoing.”
Not only do senators want to avoid the appearance of seeking the post at this stage, but many distanced themselves from any talk of succession whatsoever. In interviews in the Capitol on Tuesday, several senators denied hearing about the maneuvering in anticipation of McConnell’s retirement.
In fact, many GOP senators testified that McConnell is in good health, or at least better health than earlier this year. Three senators—Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), Mike Rounds (R-SD) and John Cornyn (R-TX)—each called the leader “sharp” as ever.
“He seems like he’s back to his old self,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN).
But to some in the GOP conference, the idea that some senators are angling to succeed McConnell when the time comes is hardly offensive; it’s obvious.
“I don't think there's been a big shock there that there are a few people who… gauge more often than others, raise more money than others, and they're in a position where they can. And why not?” asked Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND).
“I mean, we all know Mitch isn’t going to be leader a decade from now—at least I don’t think so,” Cramer continued. “And so it’s only natural that people who have been around a while would position themselves for the moment when it opens.”
On Capitol Hill, it’s widely believed that someone by the name of John will be the next Senate Republican leader: either Cornyn, Sen. John Thune (R-SD), or Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY). The former No. 2, current No. 2, and current No. 3, respectively, the three men have been allies of McConnell and have been seen as patiently waiting to run for the job when he retires.
But a few Republicans suggested that the pool of candidates might well be larger.
“I don’t think there's any jockeying by the people most likely to succeed him,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), mentioning Thune, Cornyn, and Barrasso. “But I know there’s always going to be some agitators who would like to go in an entirely different direction, and they’ll stir the pot as they think they can.”
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), who did not support McConnell in his last leadership election, was clear that the field likely wouldn’t be limited to the three Johns, as they’ve become known on Capitol Hill.
“You never know who else might, in an open leadership contest, who else might run,” Hawley said. “I’m not thinking of anybody in particular, but, you know, I would say I don’t think it's necessarily the case that it would be limited to only two or three candidates. There are maybe four or five.”
It’s unclear exactly who those candidates might be. But among the Senate GOP’s growing flank of senators aligned with Donald Trump, there is a craving for new leadership with a more stridently right-wing and combative style. Although Scott’s challenge to McConnell failed earlier this year, he did pick up 10 votes, accounting for roughly 20 percent of the conference.
According to GOP sources attuned to the nuances of the potential candidates, there are plenty of signs that the shadow campaign to succeed McConnell is hiding in plain sight.
“If you look closely, the three Johns are clearly trying to one-up each other at every turn,” said a different senior Republican aide.
“It’s no coincidence that you see John Barrasso parading around Kari Lake,” the aide continued. (Barrasso endorsed Lake’s candidacy for Senate in Arizona last month, making him the first high-ranking Senate Republican to endorse the MAGA firebrand who is beloved by the party base but feared by others to be an obvious loser in that purple state.)
“I don’t think you could dream up two people cut from a more different cloth in temperament and style,” the aide said of Barrasso—a low-key doctor turned politician—and the combative and attention-craving Lake.
The chatter around Capitol Hill, as well as the lobbyist world of K Street, is that Thune, currently Minority Whip, would have the inside track for the top job. As McConnell’s direct lieutenant, the move is an obvious one, and the role has given him plenty of opportunities to prove his leadership mettle to members.
According to The Hill, Thune has asserted himself more conspicuously in recent policy fights—in particular playing a leading role in Senate GOP strategy over avoiding a government shutdown in September.
Notably, Thune might be likeliest to continue McConnell’s streak of breaking with the party’s de facto leader—Trump—when warranted. The former president’s orbit certainly considers him an enemy, trying to no avail to defeat him in his successful 2022 re-election campaign.
Thune’s ability to easily overcome MAGA resistance back home could make him an appealing option to a Senate conference that largely can’t wait to move on from Trump. It also ensures that outside activists would attempt to derail any leadership bid from Thune, as they did with varying House Republicans during their leadership struggle in October.
But Thune would face stiff competition. Cornyn, who held that same No. 2 position from 2013 to 2019, would have a strong case to make to Republican senators.
For one, Cornyn is an effective GOP fundraiser: in the 2022 midterm cycle, his joint fundraising committee raised $11 million that directly went to GOP campaigns and committees, according to federal campaign finance records.
On top of that, Cornyn hauled in an additional $9 million for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and other Republicans, much of which came from fundraisers he hosted, according to a source familiar with his political operation.
Only McConnell has raised more money for Senate Republicans than Cornyn. He’s also won contentious leadership elections before.
While certainly a partisan Republican, Cornyn is also known to have solid working relationships with various wings of his conference—and with Democrats, too. The Texan played a leading role in crafting a major bipartisan gun safety bill last year, for instance, and has historically tried to work across the aisle on criminal justice and immigration reforms with his colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In today’s GOP, of course, Cornyn’s bipartisan sensibility could just as easily be seen as a liability, and Senate conservatives—not to mention outside activists—could make it a focal point of any campaign against him.
Barrasso has served as Republican Conference chair, the No. 3 position, since 2019, where he has been in charge of crafting GOP messaging on legislative matters. Considered more of a partisan than Thune and Cornyn, the Wyoming senator might appeal to the senators who have been unhappy with McConnell’s leadership—should no one from that wing emerge to run.
While Trump has dismissed Barrasso, Thune, and Cornyn, the Wyoming senator’s embrace of Lake may reflect his inclination to make inroads with the more MAGA populist wing of the party.
Asked what he might want to see from the next leader, Hawley—who hails squarely from that faction of the conference—said the basic task at hand is “to unite your own conference and divide the opposition, not the reverse.”
“So I think it’s important that, you know, whoever comes next is willing to do that, and also is good to stand up for the priorities that the voters send us here for,” Hawley told the Daily Beast. “I mean, there’s a huge disconnect in this building between what people talk about when they’re at home with voters and then what actually happens here, and I think voters aren’t stupid. They know that.”
Since the beginning of the year, the 81-year-old McConnell has dealt with several health challenges that have put pressure on the leader and added arguments to the succession conversation.
In March, the longtime leader fell during a dinner in Washington, suffering a concussion and broken ribs that landed him in the hospital for an extended stretch, keeping him away from the Senate for six weeks.
In July and August, McConnell froze during press conferences in Washington and Kentucky. Capitol physician Brian Monahan said McConnell was “medically clear” to continue work after the most recent public freeze.
If McConnell is considering an early retirement from the Senate, his decision may be influenced by Tuesday’s elections in Kentucky, where the Democratic incumbent, Gov. Andy Beshear, defeated McConnell protégé Daniel Cameron to win re-election.
Under a 2021 Kentucky state law, if a senator leaves office early, the governor must select a Senate appointee from a list of three names selected by the state executive committee of the departing senator’s party. In McConnell’s case, that means if he leaves the Senate, by law, his successor would be a Republican, regardless of the governor’s party affiliation.
Beshear has signaled slotting a Republican into a Senate vacancy might not be so simple if he has anything to do with it. The governor fought the Kentucky General Assembly on the new law, and in September, he resisted committing to tapping a Republican to fill an empty Senate seat.
If Cameron won, it would have presented a cleaner avenue for McConnell to weigh in on his successor.
“Well the Governor appoints the person to fill the rest of the term so if Daniel wins, I can see him retiring because he can have a hand in selecting the person to fill his seat,” said a close friend of McConnell’s wife, former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, before Tuesday’s results were known.
“If Beshear wins, I think he will hang on until the legislature can change the law to eliminate the Governor’s appointment,” Chao’s friend said, referring to the questions about Beshear’s interpretation of the law.
But the law that the Kentucky legislature passed, overriding a Beshear veto, doesn't have an official name. But it has a conspicuous colloquial name around the Kentucky statehouse: ‘the Daniel Cameron Law,’ in reference to the belief that Cameron would be picked as McConnell’s successor.
Matt Fuller contributed to this report.