The decision by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to retire at the end of the 109th Congress has prompted two of his top deputies to begin quietly soliciting support from colleagues in anticipation of a leadership race that is not scheduled to take place until 2006.
Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) began meeting personally with GOP Senators several months ago to make the case that he is best qualified to succeed Frist. Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) began private conversations with GOP Senators last week to express a similar interest in being the next Republican leader.
“Mitch has done a lot of work,” said a Republican Senator who asked not to be named. “You can argue or debate at what point is it right to start, but Mitch early on has really talked to a number of people.”
Santorum acknowledged that McConnell might have already spoken to more GOP Senators about the race, but he said that has not deterred him.
“I am not as laser-beamed as Senator McConnell,” Santorum said. “I am just talking to Members letting them know my interest in leadership and continuing in leadership and basically asking them to keep their minds open.”
Several Senators said they have already been approached by either McConnell, Santorum or both to talk about the future leadership race.
“I think people are getting a little restless and starting to think about the future and wondering what their role is going to be,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “Since this is my first time through this process, I am trying to do my best to listen and be cautious.”
McConnell’s decision to try to lock in votes as early as this summer appears to have given him an early edge over Santorum. The Kentucky Republican pursued a similar strategy in 2002, when he successfully carried out a campaign for Republican Whip. Senate Republican Policy Chairman Larry Craig (Idaho) had also expressed interest in that position, but he eventually bowed out of the race after realizing that McConnell had already secured enough commitments to win the race.
“We tend to make commitments, and once those commitments are made they are very hard to break,” said Craig, when asked about the 2002 Whip race.
As for the 2006 Republican Leader’s race, Craig said it is too early for him to offer his vote to either Senator. “I am not prepared to commit to anyone at this point,” he said. “I am going to evaluate based on performance and performance is yet to be completed.”
A McConnell ally suggested yesterday that the Kentucky Republican may have enough support from within the Conference to be elected GOP Leader when Frist retires.
“It is my impression, just from talking to Members, that there is a comfort level with him moving to the next step because it is a logical progression,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “For him not to [win], there would have to be an articulated reason that no one seems to have articulated.”
While both Senators represent the conservative wing of their party, each is offering a different sales pitch on why colleagues should entrust them with the Republican Leader’s office.
Santorum is saying he would represent a new generation of leadership within the Republican Party, while McConnell argues that he offers a steady hand and expertise in Senate floor procedure.
A Santorum ally said the Pennsylvania Republican would advocate a “very forward-looking agenda,” with a McConnell supporter countering that the Kentucky Senator offered “a good disposition and a good touch” that is needed to run the Senate.
Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), a McConnell confidant, predicted that McConnell will have locked up enough votes for the 2006 leadership race “after the elections.” But Santorum said he is “getting some good feedback from his discussions” and questioned the idea that anyone could secure votes for a leadership election that is scheduled so far in the future.
“This is two and half years away,” the Pennsylvania Senator said. “I don’t know the idea of locking up anything makes any sense.”
The race for Republican Leader will be one of several contests in 2006 that could change the face of the Senate GOP leadership team. Republican Conference term limits require Santorum to step down from his post, and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas) must leave her post as Conference Vice Chairwoman. There is likely to be a battle as well for the GOP Whip post being vacated by McConnell.