Republican Senate leader fight expected to put party rift between factions on full display

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The race for the next Republican Senate leader has the potential to further expose deepening divisions within the party as the conference looks to select a new head in November after the longest-serving party leader in Senate history, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell R-Ky., steps down from his post. 

While the Republicans boast 49 seats in the Senate, they don’t all champion the same brand of conservatism. This has become more evident in the Trump era as the party’s positions and base shift. 

According to Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, former top spokesman to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and former chief of staff of the Senate Republican Conference, more attention will likely be called to “the old guard versus the new populism that is growing quickly within the Senate GOP” during the leader fight. 

The battle is further poised “to draw Trump into the mix more often on high-profile national issues,” he said. 



U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., arrives for a Senate Republican meeting at the U.S. Capitol Feb. 8, 2024, in Washington, D.C.  (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

The Trump campaign did not comment when reached by Fox News Digital regarding the former president’s preference for leader. 

In his remarks on the Senate floor, McConnell cited “Father Time,” noting he wasn’t “the young man sitting in the back” anymore. He explained it was time for “the next generation of leadership.”

He further expressed his “full confidence” in the Republican conference to choose a successor.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, announced his bid for leader the day after McConnell’s announcement on the Senate floor, telling colleagues in a statement he was asking them “to give me the opportunity to succeed Leader McConnell.” 

Corwyn, Barrasso, Scott and Thune

Senators John Cornyn, John Barrasso, Rick Scott and John Thune are considered potential successors to outgoing Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. (Getty Images)


Former Cornyn staffer and Republican strategist Brian Walsh said the race “will be a moment for all sides to make their voices heard.” However, he believes the competition will demonstrate exactly why the next leader “should have the experience and record to bring the different factions together and move forward with a unified agenda.” 

While Cornyn is the only senator to have formally entered the race, several others are understood to be eyeing the position and are actively consulting with their colleagues. 

Sen. John Thune at a news coneference

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., speaks during a news conference following Senate Republican policy luncheons at the U.S. Capitol in Washington Dec. 7, 2021. (Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

A spokesperson for Senate Republican Whip John Thune, R-S.D., told Fox News Digital in a statement, “Senator Thune is reaching out to each of his colleagues directly to discuss the future of the Senate Republican Conference and what they would like to see in their next leader.”

Thune plans to continue talking to fellow senators in the days and weeks to come, “but he intends on keeping those conversations private,” the spokesperson said. 


Other senators believed to be considering their own bids are Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and senators Rick Scott, R-Fla., and Steve Daines, R-Mont. 

Barrasso recently told reporters he was focused on the general election, but said, “I’m going to talk to members of the conference, hear what they have to say [and] listen to them in terms of what direction that they want to take with us.”

As for Daines, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he also said his focus was on the election. 

Steve Daines Montana

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said his focus is on the election. (Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images)

“It’s far too early to know where this lands, but whatever we see play out publicly is nothing compared to the intense inside game already underway,” Republican strategist and Capitol Hill veteran Zack Roday said. 

“The Senate is still the Senate, even if an increasing number of its members may operate like counterparts in the House.”

While some strategists suggested experience would win the leadership position, a few senators have indicated different qualities they want to see in McConnell’s successor. 


“Our next Senate GOP leader must be someone who understands that the real reason our party is changing so fast is because voters keep electing new leaders who want to end mass migration, bring jobs & factories back, get control of our debt & put America first ahead of anything and everyone else,” Sen. Marco Rubio R-Fla., wrote on X, formerly Twitter. 

Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., said the leader needs to reflect a “new point of view” that says the U.S. can’t continue borrowing money at the current rate and giving the amount of aid it currently does to other countries. He added he wants to see a conference that doesn’t “vote for democratic legislation” and introduces “conservative ideas that are entrepreneurial.”

Sen. Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL)

Sen. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., talks to reporters about the federal debt limit during a news conference with members of the House Freedom Caucus at the U.S. Capitol March 22, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Scott poses the most potential to rile up the faction of Senate Republicans most unhappy with McConnell’s leadership. In 2022, he notably challenged McConnell’s long-running reign but ultimately failed to knock off the Kentucky Republican. At the time, Braun told reporters McConnell maintained 37 votes, with Scott peeling away 10 senators. One Republican also voted “present.” 

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, a vocal member of the hardline faction, would welcome Scott’s leadership if the Florida Republican managed to get the conference on board, a staffer in the senator’s office conveyed to Fox News Digital.


mike Lee

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah., speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee markup hearing Nov. 30, 2023.  (Bill Clark)

“In recent years, congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle have been given fits by the extreme wings of their parties, and a lot of that has to do with how closely divided the parties are in their control of the two chambers,” Grant Reeher, a political science professor at Syracuse University, explained.

“Every vote counts. If the race ends up calling the question of where in the party the energy and the center of power are, it could produce a clear winner but also lay bare the divisions within the party — which, for example, are indicated by the fact that former President Trump is getting just 60% of the primary vote.”

However, he said it’s also possible a moderate candidate could appeal in different ways to each faction, carrying that candidate to a win. But this person is certain to face “more headaches down the road” for it, the professor added. 

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