‘I’ve made no secret of my intentions,’ Cornyn poised to launch bid to succeed McConnell as Senate GOP leader

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Minority Leader, speaks with Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Monday, January 23, 2023. Credit: Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA via REUTERS

By Matthew Choi, The Texas Tribune

WASHINGTON This could be John Cornyn’s moment.

After years serving among the top — but not the very top — of Senate Republican leadership, Texas’ senior senator has a chance at the job he has long wanted: Senate Republican leader. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced his plans to retire from the post Wednesday after 17 years leading his party.

Cornyn hasn’t formally announced that he’ll run for the post, but he has frequently hinted at his desire to succeed McConnell. When asked about his plans Wednesday, Cornyn said: “I think today is about Mitch McConnell, but I’ve made no secret of my intentions.”

When asked when he thinks he would announce a run, Cornyn merely grinned.

McConnell is the longest-serving Senate leader of either party in American history, leaving an indelible mark on the institution and the federal judiciary. He will finish out his term as leader this year then serve as a rank-and-file senator until the end of his term in 2027.

“I know the politics within my party at this particular moment in time. I have many faults, misunderstanding politics is not one of them,” McConnell said in his speech announcing his retirement.

Cornyn has been a loyal number two to McConnell’s leadership. He served as Republican whip from 2013 to 2019 and has built strong ties across the conference with his fundraising prowess. Cornyn remains a close McConnell lieutenant after being term limited out of being whip.

Two other senators have emerged as potential contenders for the job. The current Republican whip, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, is also a likely contender. Senate Republican Conference Chair John Barrasso of Wyoming has also hinted interest in the past. Neither said Wednesday if they would run.

“There’ll be plenty of time” to discuss succession, Thune said. “Today we just want to reflect on [McConnell’s] service and honor him for that. And then we’ll go from there.”

Texas’ junior senator Ted Cruz also held back on Wednesday when asked if he would back Cornyn, should he make a bid.

“Oh, there’ll be plenty of time to assess those questions,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

In a statement, he said: “I suspect a number of my colleagues are interested in the job, and I look forward to seeing whom the conference selects as the next leader as we hopefully enter the majority this November.”

McConnell’s succession became the talk of Washington last year after he froze on camera twice and suffered a fall that kept him out of the Capitol for nearly six weeks. But Cornyn has previously refused to speculate or formally position himself for the job.

“As you might imagine, I’ve been through a lot of leadership elections, and I’ve never seen one that’s been won in the press,” Cornyn said in September. “And I don’t think this would be any different.”

McConnell’s control over his party has gradually fractured as Republicans shifted increasingly to the right since Donald Trump’s presidency. Sen. Rick Scott of Florida ran against McConnell for leader in November 2022 — the first time McConnell was challenged for the job. Cruz was a vocal backer of Scott’s bid, which put him at odds with Cornyn as he criticized McConnell for failing to capture the Senate from Democratic control in that year’s midterm elections. Cruz voted to oust McConnell in a closed-door conference meeting that year.

Cruz again called for McConnell to step down earlier this month in response to a failed bipartisan border security and foreign aid bill that Cruz opposed. The bill was a top priority for McConnell until Trump turned on the bill.

“There are lots of conversations that are ongoing between all sorts of different collections of senators right now,” Cruz said Wednesday. “At this point, I’m going to keep my ears open and my mind open and listen to my colleagues.”

Cruz noted this will be the first open election for a Republican leader since he first joined the Senate in 2012.

Cruz himself is not planning to run for leader.

“That is not the desire of my heart,” Cruz said of succeeding McConnell. “I am quite happy doing what I’m doing right now.”

Cruz has said he would be interested in running for president again in 2028. He endorsed Trump for president this cycle.

Other Senators largely kept to themselves on whom they would back, some jokingly saying they would back “John.” But unlike Cornyn, Thune has the enthusiastic backing of his fellow home-state senator, Mike Rounds.

Cornyn’s rise in the Senate closely reflects McConnell’s. Both spent years in the top ranks of the party supporting their respective leader. Both built strong ties across the conference by sharing from their cavernous coffers. Both have focused on conservative priorities in the judiciary.

One of McConnell’s proudest legacies is the confirmation of hundreds of conservative judges to federal courts in Texas and around the country, including three under former President Donald Trump to the U.S. Supreme Court. Cornyn, a former Texas Supreme Court Justice and former Texas attorney general, serves on the Senate Judiciary committee.

Cornyn is also a prodigious fundraiser, sharing the spoils to help fellow Republicans in the Senate. His joint fundraising committee, the Cornyn Victory Committee, raised over $11.6 million in the 2022 cycle for other Republican candidates. He raised more money than any other Senate Republican that cycle other than McConnell himself and Scott, who then chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Including the Cornyn Victory Committee, Cornyn raised a total of over $20 million in the 2022 cycle.

Cornyn also urged his fellow Republicans not to rest on their laurels in 2020, even those in supposedly safe seats. He warned that the 2018 rise of Beto O’Rourke and his razor-thin loss against Cruz should push Republicans to take all threats in the state seriously.

“2018 was kind of an outlier. It was sort of a wake up call for all of us,” Cornyn said in an interview last year. “And in 2020, when I was on the ballot, we were well prepared because we got that warning shot across our bow in 2018.”

His genteel manner and pragmatism have also secured him substantial — and bipartisan — legislative wins. He was instrumental in the passage of Congress’ first major gun safety law in decades following the Robb Elementary shooting in Uvalde. He was a key negotiator in the CHIPS and Science Act, which brought millions in federal funding to Texas’ burgeoning semiconductor industry.

But Cornyn’s style has at times been at odds with his fellow Republicans outside the gilded halls of the Senate. Attendees booed Cornyn at a 2022 Texas Republican Party meeting over his negotiations on the gun safety legislation. His approval ratings among Texas Republicans have declined since their 2020 highs, reaching 45% this month, according to The Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. Cruz meanwhile polled at 78% approval among Republicans.

He brushed it off at the time, telling an audience in 2022 at Austin Community College that “legislating is not for sissies.”

Like McConnell, Cornyn was hesitant to back Trump, despite the former president’s wide popularity among Texas Republicans. Cornyn told reporters last May that “President Trump’s time has passed him by and I think what’s the most important thing to me is we have a candidate who can actually win.”

“I don’t think President Trump understands that When you run into a general election, you have to appeal to voters beyond your base,” Cornyn said at the time. “So believing that I think we need to come up with an alternative.”

Cornyn eventually endorsed Trump after his primary win in New Hampshire. McConnell has not formally endorsed Trump and nor has he spoken to the former president since he left office. McConnell was furious at Trump for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and for ridiculing his wife, former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

Cornyn and Cruz were among a handful of Republican senators in the chamber as McConnell made his retirement speech. After a tearful McConnell finished his speech, he and Cornyn shook hands.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/02/28/texas-john-cornyn-mitch-mcconnell/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.