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Senate GOP Whip contenders have put their ambitions on ice for now, following a backlash from rank-and-file Republicans concerned that a public intraparty power struggle might sow discord and alienate voters in the midst of a national fiscal crisis.
After Minority Whip Jon Kyl announced his retirement in February, GOP Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) quickly publicized their bids to succeed the Arizonan as the No. 2 Senate Republican in the next Congress. Their moves led to jockeying by other ambitious Republicans seeking to advance into Cornyn’s and Alexander’s spots, and heated contests for at least three of the top GOP leadership positions ensued for about two weeks.
Though jockeying quietly continues behind the scenes, Senators involved in the Whip and other leadership races put the brakes on their public campaigning after being admonished by a few of the rank and file in private Conference gatherings. According to GOP sources, Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) was among the most vocal — warning fellow Republicans that internal squabbling at a time when the nation was looking to Congress to address serious problems was an unnecessary distraction and bad politics.
Coburn was unavailable for comment Wednesday, but other Republicans confirmed that GOP Senators forcefully urged leadership candidates to quash their campaigning. All of the Republican Senators interviewed for this story said the candidates complied and the contests have been barely noticeable in the 10 weeks since things quieted down.
“Members were direct with everybody: Now is not the time, it’s too far away,” Chief Deputy Minority Whip Richard Burr (N.C.) said. “Most of the guys over here have been through the House. In House elections, they have a defined starting point and a defined ending point. They don’t run from Congress to Congress. I think that message got out and everybody sort of cooled their jets.”
“People stepped up and said that they would prefer not to see this discussed right now,” added Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), a former House Whip who is no stranger to leadership battles. “That seems to be the position everybody has accepted.”
Still, it’s not as if the Whip race in particular has been completely pushed out of Senators’ minds.