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Who’s Next? A Quiet Race To Lead Senate

Still recovering from their leadership shakeup in December, Senate Republicans already know that a slow-motion, below-the-radar campaign is under way for the GOP Conference’s top spot and possibly several other leadership posts.

While no Senator is publicly campaigning for a race that is most likely three years off, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has made clear he has every intention of fulfilling his plan to serve two terms in the Senate and leave the chamber after 2006. Two other GOP leaders, Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Conference Vice Chairwoman Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), will be up against term limits in their positions at the end of 2006, forcing them into an up-or-out decision and opening up two lower-rung leadership spots for junior Senators.

And across the board there appears to be no frontrunner for any of the positions, particularly GOP leader, according to Senators, aides, consultants and lobbyists. This gives any number of GOP Senators — Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Santorum, Hutchison, Policy Committee Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.) or others — the time to build a quiet campaign to set the Conference’s course for the latter half of the decade.

“Right now, it’s a seed in people’s minds,” said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who was deposed five months ago after lauding former Sen. Strom Thurmond’s (R-S.C.) 1948 Dixiecrat presidential campaign. Lott said the race to succeed Frist wouldn’t take on a high profile until 2006, and that by then the potential leader could be someone not among the names that currently top most observers’ lists of individuals other than the obvious choices such as Santorum or McConnell.

“There’s also a pretty good chance the next leader is not on anyone’s radar right now,” Lott said.

What makes the impending race to succeed Frist unique is that GOP Senators have such a head start in knowing when it will happen. Frist’s statements about his political future always note that he never took a term-limit pledge, but he has admitted he says that mostly to avoid being called a hypocrite in the off chance that he decided to run for re-election. As he told Roll Call last month, “It is not my intention to run, nor has it been.”

With the succession still a few years off, no Senators are willing to admit they want Frist’s job, but many have staff and supporters already war-gaming scenarios.

“I’m not going to speculate about what might happen three and a half years from now,” McConnell said, noting that he thinks Frist is doing a good job as leader. “I hope and expect that he’ll continue to do that.”

But McConnell’s biggest backer in the Senate endorsed the Kentucky Republican for the top spot, dismissing any notion that triple bypass surgery in February would slow McConnell down in the years to come.

“I’m for McConnell,” said Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), who managed the Whip’s successful campaign last year for the No. 2 leadership post. “I would hope that he would run, and that would be the logical progression.”

McConnell’s ascension to leader would fit the traditional seniority system that Republicans have so often employed in choosing their leaders.

“Absent the health problems, I would have simply said it’s McConnell’s for the taking,” said one veteran GOP lobbyist and fundraiser.

McConnell, 61, has said his health is improving, a point Bennett sought to drive home: “He’s fine.”

Even if his health is fine, some Republican strategists and aides have noted the dramatic generational shift inside the Republican Conference. There are now 30 GOP Senators who have taken office since January 1995, bringing with them a potentially different mindset and sparking speculation that younger Senators could be searching for someone closer to them in terms of age and approach.

And Republicans have become giddy about their long-term prospects for maintaining the chamber’s majority. With 30 states supporting President Bush in the 2000 elections, many of which he carried by overwhelming margins, Republicans now believe that the long-term tilt of the Senate will eventually mirror that red-state proportion, shifting the narrowly divided chamber closer to a 60-40 GOP majority.

“It’s going to trend toward 60 Republicans,” said Grover Norquist, a conservative activist who sees a bigger GOP majority leading toward a more aggressive leadership. “We’re going to see a change in culture, and you’re going to be asking for a different kind of leader.”

That could give Santorum, who turned 45 earlier this month, an inside track to the younger members of the Conference. Ambitious and aggressive, Santorum has not shied away from the spotlight in recent months, and even briefly considered challenging Frist for leader in December after Lott stepped down. Using his No. 3 leadership post, Santorum essentially filled a vacuum in the first few months of the year, raising his profile on a host of issues — judges, partial-birth abortion, faith-based initiatives, taxes — while McConnell recuperated from his surgery and Frist learned the inside baseball of Senate machinations.

At the same time, Santorum has stepped up his political operation, increasing fundraising for his leadership political action committee. In the first three months of the year, he raised more than $285,000 for America’s Foundation, almost matching the $338,000 he raised in the first six months of 2001.

Last election cycle, Santorum hosted more than a dozen fundraising events, mostly in Philadelphia, that put at least $50,000 in the campaign coffers of key Senate candidates, a practice he is repeating this cycle. One GOP lobbyist noted that increased fundraising and donations will be a critical component to campaigns for potential Republican leaders, considering new campaign laws make the chase for hard dollars more critical than ever.

“The smart guys are already laying the groundwork,” the lobbyist said.

Santorum’s biggest problem would probably be one of perception, and there would likely be some resistance to his taking the top leadership post from the “Old Bulls,” the bloc of GOP chairmen who have been around the chamber for decades and are worried about his aggressive style. That perception may have been reinforced by comments Santorum made in an interview with The Associated Press last month, when he endorsed criminalizing homosexual acts and blamed the Catholic Church’s priest-sex scandal on liberal support for judicial privacy rulings.

“It will be a factor,” one veteran GOP Senator said of Santorum’s image. “It will be a factor, one of five or six or seven factors. Who knows?”

Santorum didn’t improve his image with the Bulls last year when he pushed a clarification to the Conference rules that would have imposed a strict six-year limit on the amount of combined time a Republican could serve as committee chairman and ranking member. Santorum won just 17 votes for his proposal.

Even some of Santorum’s allies say that no one can get elected leader by promoting a Gingrich-style revolution among Senators who pride themselves on serving in the “upper chamber.”

“I don’t think you’re going to see a ‘revolution’ come to the Senate, just because the culture and nature of the institution won’t allow it,” said David Rehr, the top lobbyist for the National Beer Wholesalers Association, discounting Norquist’s cultural change theory.

Some Senators say Santorum’s image within the Conference has been dramatically reshaped since he first entered the Senate.

“Rick has matured greatly over the years,” said Kyl, whose Policy Committee post ranks No. 4 in leadership. Kyl said that in a couple of years there would clearly be a handful of potential successors to Frist. “You’ve got to figure that Rick will be among that group,” he added.

Of course, assuming Frist stays leader until the end of 2006, Santorum must first win re-election in the fall of ‘06 before he can collect any votes for another leadership post.

One clear wild card in the leadership merry-go-round is Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), who long aspired to become Republican leader during a 14-year stint in leadership that saw him hold three different posts. Now the Budget chairman, Nickles could mount an outsider campaign for the post he always aspired to — and he continues to wield an aggressive political operation.

Nickles’ leadership PAC took in $242,000 during the first three months of 2003, close to the $297,000 he raised in the first five months of 2001. But Nickles has a bigger decision to make first, whether to run for re-election next year, and he’s given no indication that he’s actively pursuing it: Fundraising for his campaign committee was near dormant in the first quarter, taking in just $53,000.

Hutchison or Kyl could also make a run for the top spot if McConnell and Santorum were to somehow falter in the years ahead and Republicans were searching for a fresh-face option. Consequently, either Senator could also shoot for the No. 2 or No. 3 spot in leadership if McConnell and Santorum were to square off for Frist’s job.

Of the most junior members of the Conference, Sen. George Allen (Va.) has made the quickest jump into leadership, taking over as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee after just two years in office. A strong showing by Senate Republicans in the 2004 elections could position Allen for one of the top leadership posts, a route that was just blazed by Frist, whose strong leadership at the NRSC in 2002 made him the consensus choice to succeed Lott.

Several other junior Senators would likely shoot for the lower leadership posts, including Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who chairs the Steering Committee, an informal but influential conservative caucus; Sam Brownback

(R-Kansas), who vied for the Steering Committee position; and John Ensign (R-Nev.), a prodigious fundraiser who considered gunning for the NRSC chairmanship this cycle.

One name that has been suggested in the past for leadership races is Sen. Judd Gregg

(R-N.H.), who has served as a top adviser to Lott and now serves also as a counselor in a non-leadership role to Frist. Despite encouragement from Lott in the past, Gregg has never jumped into a leadership race, instead becoming chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. He has also been mentioned as a candidate for a spot on the federal bench.

“Well, I never rule anything out,” Gregg said last week about leadership races. “But I’ve passed up that opportunity in the past.”

And then there’s Lott, who is widely expected to retire at the end of his term in 2006, if not sooner, but who couldn’t resist the idea of floating his own name for a potential return to leadership, mostly in jest — mostly.

“Who knows what the good Lord is gonna bring you,” Lott said. “Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad. I might just keep that threat out there to keep everyone on their toes.”