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Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.), another possible candidate for Whip, Conference chairman or NRSC chairman, joined Alexander in voting to end the filibuster of John McConnell and similarly opposed the nominee upon final confirmation.
But Cornyn supported the filibuster, and many Senate observers view the difference between him and Alexander on this vote as potentially significant in the Texan's favor. However, Republicans will consider more than floor votes when they cast their votes for Whip, and it's possible that Cornyn's perceived advantage will fail to materialize when the heavy campaigning begins one year from now.
"It's a decision made based upon what the needs are of the Conference. I'd say that the needs we have now and next year are totally different than they were four years ago," Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said. "The Senate, in a bipartisan way, is all about relationships. There's more legislation that's done in two Members' offices than there ever is on the Senate floor. It comes into play with leadership races. There's no substitution for the confidence that somebody has in you relative to whether they can vote for you."
Republican Senate aides and GOP operatives with relationships in the chamber note that, despite appearances, the Conference has remained ideologically diverse along the conservative spectrum, meaning that even if Alexander is viewed as less conservative than Cornyn, he could have a sizable constituency in a race that breaks along the candidates' voting records.
The Whip's job in most cases is to enforce party unity, which could play into some Members' calculations. Where additional factors come into play, as is expected, both Alexander and Cornyn have an opportunity to capitalize.
Cornyn, 59, has built a successful national fundraising network at the NRSC, earning kudos for his leadership of the committee, particularly because he sought the job when no one wanted it. Electing Cornyn as Whip could position him to succeed McConnell, 69, and a vote for him could signal a desire for long-term leadership stability. Viewed as more aggressive, Cornyn could profit in an environment where Members want a fresh face at the top.
Alexander, 71, ran for Whip in 2006, losing in a close vote to then-Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.). The Tennessean has cultivated close personal relationships with GOP Members across the ideological spectrum and is believed by some to have made stronger connections than Cornyn has, although the Texan is well-liked. Given his age, Alexander is likely to retire before Cornyn, and he could have the advantage if Members want to ensure their own ability to advance in leadership sooner.
One GOP lobbyist predicted the older Senators, plus Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), would support Alexander, leaving those in the middle in seniority and the newer Members to choose between the Tennessean as a "short-term placeholder" or Cornyn as their "long-term" future Conference leader.
"How many will want to install Cornyn over themselves?" this lobbyist said. The freshman class of 2010, with GOP establishment and tea party figures, could split its support, a second GOP lobbyist said.