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In what some Republican sources described as a proxy for the Whip campaign to come, Alexander and Cornyn found themselves on opposite sides of a controversial judicial nomination Wednesday. Both voted against John McConnell, nominated by President Barack Obama to the U.S. District Court. But, unlike Cornyn, Alexander broke with the majority of his conference in opposing its attempt to filibuster the nomination. GOP sources indicated that the Texan might attempt to use Alexander's vote against him when the Whip race is re-engaged next year.
But Republican operatives on and off Capitol Hill say Cornyn’s best chance for beating Alexander — the No. 3 GOP Senator and a close confidant of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) — would be to win the Senate majority in 2012. Cornyn earned wide praise from his colleagues last cycle for turning what looked to be a tough cycle into a seven-seat gain. Just a four-seat gain would give the GOP a 51-vote majority in 2012.
Alexander has strong relationships across the party’s ideological spectrum and is adept at working the Senate’s parliamentary levers. Still, he, too, appears to be making moves designed to build support. Although within his purview as the Senate GOP’s chief messenger, it appears to be no accident that he has partnered recently with fellow Republicans on key issues. Alexander has worked with Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio) on his jobs plan and with South Carolina Sens. Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham on opposing an Obama labor policy.
Alexander and Cornyn were hesitant to discuss the Whip contest when queried on Wednesday, tacitly acknowledging their colleagues’ preference that the race lie dormant until the summer of 2012, when Senate Republicans expect it to heat up and stay that way through Election Day.
“We have $4-a-gallon gasoline and a debt to work on, and other Republican Senators would be very unhappy if they thought that either one of us was spending time fooling around with an internal leadership contest that doesn’t happen for a year and one half,” Alexander said.
Added Cornyn: “I think everybody realizes that the country is at a crossroads and there are more important things we need to be doing right now than thinking about an election that won’t be held until November of 2012.”
Of course, Alexander and Cornyn are not the only Republicans who’d like to move up in the hierarchy.
Sen. Mike Johanns (Neb.) revealed his intention to run for Conference chairman soon after Alexander announced for Whip. Republican Conference Vice Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.) has acknowledged his interest in advancing as well. The No. 4 Republican, Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.), said Wednesday that he remains undecided as to what leadership position he will seek, but he said he is leaving all of his options open.
Thune acknowledged that there had been anxiety among his Republican colleagues that, if the leadership contests for the 113th Congress kicked off too early, the fight would create division and make it impossible for Members to focus on jobs, government spending and other issues.
“Everybody has sworn off getting distracted on that issue when there are so many other things we need to focus on and that we want to stay united on,” Thune said.