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Early, Long Whip Race Will Test GOP Cohesion

File Photo
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will not endorse in the Minority Whip race between GOP Sens. John Cornyn (second from left) and Lamar Alexander (right).

What has been a remarkably cohesive and collegial Senate Republican leadership team threatens to be torn asunder over the next 18 months by a potentially divisive race for Whip and additional jockeying for other top Conference posts.

Aides to Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and John Cornyn (Texas) insist that the close personal friendship shared by the two Republican leaders will prevent their competition to succeed Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) as Whip from becoming bitter. Similarly, Sen. Mike Johanns (Neb.), bidding to replace Alexander as Conference chairman, predicted little negative fallout from the leadership contests.

But with nearly the entire 112th Congress to fight it out and the high stakes involved, the professional and personal relationships of a Republican team often described as close-knit and complementary will undoubtedly be tested, as will the group’s ability to deliver for rank-and-file Members. Alexander, Johanns and Cornyn, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, all hit the phones looking for votes within an hour of Kyl’s Thursday announcement that he won’t seek re-election in 2012.

“One of the key areas to watch will be the activity during leadership meetings and how they work together,” a former Senate Republican leadership aide said. “It’s going to matter around the leadership table and how they showcase themselves.”

This former aide predicted the first year could see a “quieter” campaign and added, “It’s going to be the election year where the intensity will ratchet up.”

On the House side, a long and bitter campaign for Democratic Whip between Reps. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Steny Hoyer (Md.) years ago kept tension high. Pelosi won the 2001 vote, and their frayed relationship never was fully repaired.

Alexander and Cornyn going head-to-head for the No. 2 Whip slot, and Johanns running in a so-far-uncontested race for the No. 3 Conference chairman position might only be the beginning of a wider leadership shake-up as Republican Senators seek promotions.

Policy Committee Chairman John Thune is considering a run for Whip as well, should he decide against running for president — the South Dakota Republican and fourth-ranking leader plans to reveal his plans by month’s end. Meanwhile, Conference Vice Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.), who ranks fifth and only entered leadership last fall, is eyeing Thune’s position as well as the NRSC.

Johanns expressed confidence in an interview Friday that the multiple intra-Conference campaigns would not sow caucus disunity. “We’re all on the same team,” he said. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) does not endorse in leadership races as a matter of policy and is not expected to discuss the matter publicly. However, McConnell has been friends with Alexander for four decades, and the two are confidants.

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