Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) is planning to join Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) in the race for Whip.
Burr, currently Chief Deputy Whip under Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), has been quietly consulting GOP Members to gauge his prospects for leadership, though his inquiries had not been limited to pursuit of the elected Whip post. The North Carolinian has strong relationships in the Republican Conference across the ideological spectrum and could be a formidable competitor.
"I intend to run for Whip, but that race is a long way off," Burr said in a statement to Roll Call. "Until then, I will be concentrating on my current responsibilities as Chief Deputy Whip as well as my legislative agenda. There are a lot of issues facing our nation and the Senate, and that is where I am focusing my efforts."
Sen. Lamar Alexander's decision late last month to step down as Republican Conference chairman in January has sparked jockeying for GOP leadership positions earlier than expected. The Tennessean's decision to also drop out of the race to succeed Kyl as Whip in the 113th Congress has left Cornyn, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, as the top candidate in that race.
Burr, 55, won a second Senate term in 2010. He served a decade in the House, and he remains personally close with Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and a group of current Republican Senators who, like him, served first in the other chamber. He ran for Conference chairman, the No. 3 GOP leadership position, in 2007, but he lost handily to Alexander.
Still, Burr has strong personal relationships with conservatives, moderates and establishment Republicans in the GOP Conference, a potentially significant advantage. Voting is conducted by secret ballot, and Members are notorious for voting for one candidate despite making promises to another. Burr also is a decent fundraiser and this year has contributed close to $100,000 to a combination of 10 GOP Senators, Senate candidates and the NRSC through his political action committee.
"Burr is well-liked and he has good relationships with conservatives while still being viewed as a pragmatic legislator," a senior Republican Senate aide said Monday. "The question is whether he would mount an aggressive campaign. That I'm not sure of."
Cornyn, who has received high marks from Senate Republicans for his leadership of the NRSC beginning in late 2008, could be tough to beat if the GOP wins the majority next year. Depending on the results of the 2012 Senate elections, in which the Republicans are hoping to win back the majority, GOP leaders might recruit Burr to be the next chairman of the NRSC, said the knowledgeable Republican operative, who maintains relationships in the Senate. That could depend on whether Sens. Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Bob Corker (Tenn.) express any interest in leading the committee in the 2014 cycle. Both are mentioned as possibilities.
Another contest of interest is the race for Republican Conference vice chairman. Freshman Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.) is the only announced candidate, and he has accrued the public support of nearly a dozen Members, including many staunch conservatives but also a few establishment Republicans. Johnson's chances of winning the No. 5 leadership post could hinge on Blunt and whether he joins the race. Senate Republicans will make their selection in January.
The position is going to be vacant because of the trio of openings created by Alexander's decision to relinquish his position in January, almost a year before his term is up. Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.), who also is considering a bid to become the Whip in the next Congress, is running for Conference chairman in the January leadership elections. Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), the current Conference vice chairman, is running for Policy Committee chairman.