A disappointing election night for Senate Republicans might complicate Sen. John Cornyn’s presumed ascension to the No. 2 GOP leadership spot.
For more than a year, the Texas Republican has been the presumed frontrunner to become GOP Whip, and he is currently unopposed. But unexpected losses in deep red states such as North Dakota and other competitive seats have led to speculation that the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman could draw a fresh challenge, and sources said conversations have begun among Senators on how to proceed given the net loss of two seats Tuesday.
“After some of the results in the Senate races and the inability to get the top candidates in these races — to get them out of the primaries — I think it has made Cornyn less of a sure bet than he was a month ago,” a Senate GOP aide said.
While there will be some soul searching, the aide said Cornyn still remains the favorite in the absence of a clear alternative.
“I think he likely still gets it,” the aide said, “but it’s hard to tell until Members get back into town and everything sets in.”
Another Republican staffer agreed, saying, “I think Cornyn will be safe for Whip, but it obviously makes him weaker. I don’t see a ton of alternatives or challenges to leadership ... and without alternative candidates, they should be safe.”
Even if no one emerges to take on Cornyn, one Republican aide said challenges could crop up against other leaders, given the drubbing Senate Republicans received.
“Leadership challenges are likely,” the aide said, though it is not “clear who is going to run for which position.”
However, most sources said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) remained relatively safe, despite the handwringing.
Sen. Jerry Moran (Kan.), who is running for National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, said Senators are currently reaching out to one another now as they decide their next move on a raft of issues related to politics and governing.
“My guess is that after [Tuesday] night’s election, the Republican Senators are going to be trying to figure out what the best way forward is,” Moran said in a brief interview. “With members of the Senate spread out across the country, those conversations are beginning to take place by phone and will actually be the conversations we have next Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and are the ones that will be the most important in making some kind of determination on what’s next. And my guess is that’s true with leadership races.”
Leadership elections are set for Wednesday morning, said Moran, who added that he believes Cornyn is still the frontrunner for Whip.
As NRSC chairman, Cornyn was responsible for boosting Republican numbers in the chamber. He delivered a net gain of six seats in the 2010 elections, but the 2012 elections were unkind to Senate Republicans, who lost seats in Maine, Indiana, and Massachusetts and missed opportunities for pickups in Missouri, Montana, Indiana and North Dakota.
“We have let some really good things slip through our fingers,” the first GOP aide said, noting that Senate Democrats were defending 23 seats this cycle, while Republicans defended only 10 seats.
Sen. John Thune (S.D.), who is currently Republican Conference chairman, has said he would consider a run for both NRSC chairman and Whip, but he now seems to be telegraphing that he will remain in his current post, Senate GOP aides believe.
“Unless he is really good a playing poker, I think he probably stays,” one aide said.
Efforts to contact Thune and Cornyn for this story were unsuccessful.
Thune has pledged his support for Moran in the NRSC race, according to Moran.
“My conversation with Sen. Thune over a long period of time ... is that this is not a position that he is interested in or pursuing, and he has indicated his support for me,” Moran said.
Moran appears set to square off with Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), who has indicated Wednesday an interest in the job. Other challengers could also emerge.
Cornyn has been lining up votes to run for Whip for about two years and may have a significant leg-up on any challenger. He is seeking to replace retiring Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).
Though he may have been counting on the votes from new Members he tried to help get elected, he still likely has enough votes from the 2010 freshman class he helped elect.
“There are few Senators with as much support amongst his colleagues as John Cornyn,” another GOP source said. “Assuming he runs for Whip, which everyone assumes, it’s his.”
A Republican operative with ties to Capitol Hill said Cornyn’s relationships with Members are solid and they know that not everything can be blamed on Cornyn.
For example, the gaffes by Missouri Republican Senate candidate Rep. Todd Akin and Indiana GOP Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, who both made insensitive comments about rape victims, are not Cornyn’s fault.
“Anytime you’re in a position of leadership and have a bad election, you take the good with the bad,” the operative said.
Republicans came close to winning the majority in 2010. But while the tea party helped Republicans win control of the House, conservative tea-party-backed candidates lost key Senate races in Colorado, Delaware and Nevada.
“He had a good election in 2010; left a few on the table, but I don’t think anyone can blame Cornyn for” not delivering the majority, the operative said.
The operative said that Cornyn did an exemplary job of raising money for candidates and brought in all returning and available Members to work with the NRSC.
Outside groups also played a role in defeating Republicans in primaries that may have fared better in general elections.
“The far-right groups have made it almost impossible for the NRSC and party leaders to help ensure our nominees are ready for prime time,” a Senate GOP staffer said.
David M. Drucker contributed to this report.