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Attention returns to Sen. John Cornyn’s future after GOP Leader Mitch McConnell’s latest health scare

By Matthew Choi, The Texas Tribune

Attention returns to Sen. John Cornyn’s future after GOP Leader Mitch McConnell’s latest health scare” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. John Cornyn doesn’t hide that he wants Mitch McConnell’s job as Senate Republican leader.

The senior Texas senator has long expressed interest in the position and spent years as McConnell’s top deputy. After a recent series of health scares raised concerns about McConnell’s future, questions abound about Cornyn’s next step.

Cornyn has said that he will continue to support McConnell as party leader, calling him “extraordinarily effective” during the 2021 Texas Tribune Festival.

”But should he decide to step down and no longer serve as a leader, I’ve made it no secret that I would like to succeed him,” Cornyn added.

McConnell appeared to freeze for about a half-minute during a public event in Kentucky on Wednesday, in an apparent repeat of a similar incident during a July news conference at the Capitol. He was also out of the Capitol for nearly six weeks last spring with a concussion and fractured rib after a fall.

That absence, coupled with the senator’s age of 81, has led to murmurs on the Hill of whether it’s time for a replacement — even after an attending physician for Congress determined McConnell to be “medically clear” to work after Wednesday’s incident.

Shortly after his latest public freeze, McConnell called his closest allies in the Senate to allay concerns about his health. They included members of his formal leadership team — and Cornyn.

Cornyn served as Republican whip from 2013-19 — the second highest position within the party conference behind McConnell. Before that, the Texan was chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the party’s Senate campaign arm.

Internal rules limited how long Cornyn could hold the leadership positions, but he has maintained a firm footing within McConnell’s inner circle. When Cornyn’s time as whip ended due to term limits, McConnell asked him to stay in an appointed advisory role.

Openly jockeying to replace or oust McConnell remains taboo among top Senate Republicans, and Cornyn said in July there was no contingency plan should McConnell have to step down or take a leave of absence due to his health.

When asked about the Republican leader’s health in Dallas on Thursday, Cornyn said he “talked to Sen. McConnell yesterday, and he seems to be doing fine.”

“We all wish him well,” he added.

McConnell and Cornyn are both prolific fundraisers and have been active in sharing their cash. The Cornyn Victory Committee spent nearly $11.7 million on Republican Senate incumbents and candidates in the 2022 elections — developing relationships that could pay dividends when Republican senators choose their next leader.

Both also deeply value the Senate’s role in the formation of the judiciary. Securing conservative judges has been a cornerstone of McConnell’s leadership, and Cornyn’s past as Texas attorney general and Texas Supreme Court justice — and his seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee — have given him a front-line position in the nomination process of federal judges.

Cornyn isn’t the only potential successor. The current Republican whip, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, is also considered a likely candidate. Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, who chairs the Senate Republican Conference, is another potential contender.

Collectively, they’ve been dubbed the “three Johns.” Cornyn has the most seniority, having served in the chamber since 2002.

McConnell is the longest-serving Senate leader in U.S. history, leading his party for 16 years with an iron grip. But cracks emerged as his party moved rightward, with some Republicans saying McConnell is past his prime.

McConnell faced his first major challenge from his peers last November when a handful of fellow Republicans voted against reelecting him as minority leader. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was among the rebelling voters, arguing that the old guard refused to aggressively fight Democratic legislation and failed to win back the Senate majority in the 2022 elections. McConnell fought off the challenge, securing 37 votes to remain minority leader.

Some of those Democratic priorities included bipartisan legislation that Cornyn had a heavy hand in passing. He was a critical driver last year behind the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the first major gun safety law passed in decades. He was also a driving force behind the CHIPS and Science Act, which created new federal funding to bolster the country’s semiconductor industry in response to advances by China.

Cornyn faced a backlash in Texas for his role in passing the bills, receiving boos at the Texas Republican Convention last summer and getting censured by the Collin County Republican Party.

Cornyn brushed off the criticism at the time, saying: “Legislating is not for sissies.”

The full program is now LIVE for the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 21-23 in Austin. Explore the program featuring more than 100 unforgettable conversations coming to TribFest. Panel topics include the biggest 2024 races and what’s ahead, how big cities in Texas and around the country are changing, the integrity of upcoming elections and so much more. See the full program.

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