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John Cornyn Still Favored to Win GOP Whip Contest

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (below) is still considered the frontrunner in the Whip race.

Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) is the new underdog in the race for Republican Whip, having displaced Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) as Sen. John Cornyn’s foil in the Texan’s bid for the No. 2 GOP leadership post.

Cornyn is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee for the second consecutive cycle, and he is expected to benefit from helping lead his Conference from a low point of 40 Members in 2009 — not even enough to mount a filibuster — to, possibly, the majority, depending on the outcome of the November elections. Still, Burr’s strength could be the depth of his personal relationships with many in his Conference — connections he has nurtured as Chief Deputy Whip. GOP Senators will vote on their slate of leaders in the weeks after the general election.

“It’s Cornyn’s race to lose,” a knowledgeable GOP operative said Tuesday. But the operative cautioned against dismissing North Carolina’s senior Senator, describing him as “formidable.”

Burr, who entered the Whip race late last year after Alexander decided to exit both the Whip race and leadership altogether, appears to agree that Cornyn is the favorite. “He’s got the inside track,” Burr said. “He serves in the leadership and has done a good job at the NRSC.”

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) is retiring, opening the Whip slot beginning in the 113th Congress. Cornyn and Alexander — then the No. 3 Republican as GOP Conference chairman — announced their bids to succeed Kyl about a year ago, around the same time the Arizonan revealed he would not run for re-election in 2012. Cornyn was viewed as the leading contender in that two-man race as well. But by October, Alexander was out and Burr was in.

Cornyn has the advantage at least partly because he has been campaigning longer and probably has committed supporters lined up. Of course, Senators have been known to promise their votes to one candidate and then vote differently in these secret-ballot leadership elections. But the campaigning has been relatively quiet following an admonition in early 2011 from some GOP Members that the Conference could ill afford to be distracted by internal divisions — particularly with the Senate majority within reach.

Since those warnings were issued, overt campaigning has been at a minimum save for the occasional low-level conversation, according to a Republican Senator who has discussed the Whip race with the candidates. Cornyn agreed that the campaigning has been on a “hiatus” but indicated he is prepared to run aggressively when the time comes.

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