Senate GOP Leadership Races Heat Up

Posted October 2, 2008 at 6:27pm

Sens. John Ensign (Nev.) and John Cornyn (Texas) have started campaigning in earnest for separate posts in the GOP Senate leadership lineup, with Ensign vying to be the next Republican Policy Committee Chairman and Cornyn running to succeed his Nevada colleague as the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

GOP sources familiar with the pair’s ambitions say Ensign and Cornyn have started making calls and alerting fellow Republican Senators about their plans for the 111th Congress. Senate GOP leadership elections will be held during the week of Nov. 17, when the Senate is staged to return for organizing activities and a possible lame-duck session.

At least three GOP Senate leadership posts are likely to be open next year, including the policy and NRSC jobs as well as the Conference vice chairmanship. The vice chairmanship is now held by Cornyn and will become vacant when he runs for the NRSC slot.

Ensign, who completes his two-year stint as NRSC chairman at the end of the year, is looking to succeed Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), who announced last week that she would forgo a second term as the policy chairwoman in favor of a likely gubernatorial bid. Cornyn also had entertained running for the policy job, but sources close to the Texan say he recently settled on heading up the NRSC.

“He’s made calls to Senators expressing interest in running for NRSC,” one source said. “He is running.”

Cornyn’s bid for the top Senate campaign job could be a competitive one, however. Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) has privately expressed interest in taking on that job as well and has engaged in quiet discussions within the Conference about his plans. Publicly, Coleman has dismissed the suggestion, saying he is most concerned about his re-election to a second six-year term.

“I’m just focused on the people of Minnesota and my re-election on Nov. 4,” Coleman said last week.

Cornyn also is up for re-election this year, but his chances of winning are far more assured than Coleman’s. Still, in public statements, Cornyn has been similarly guarded about his next move.

“It’s been a privilege for Sen. Cornyn to serve as the Conference vice chair this Congress,” Cornyn’s spokesman Brian Walsh said Thursday. “He’s been speaking with his colleagues about how he might best continue serving the Conference, particularly as Republicans work to recapture the mantle of reform. But his immediate focus is on supporting Sen. Ensign and our Republican Senate candidates, and of course, on his own re- election.”

Senate elections are atop Ensign’s thoughts as the head of the NRSC, but he has recently enlisted half a dozen of his Senate GOP allies to help him whip support for his leadership bid. A Republican familiar with Ensign’s plans said it was “safe to say” he is running for the policy chairmanship and has received a “positive response” from his colleagues.

“He’s fully focused on Nov. 4,” this source said. “But he does believe he would be an effective policy chair and would like to remain a part of the leadership team and one his colleagues would embrace.”

Ensign will go into the leadership race after what’s likely to be a painful election year for the GOP. Senate Republicans have twice as many seats in play as the Democrats this year and could lose from two to six seats on Election Day.

Still, Ensign might come out of the balloting with stronger loyalties than he had coming in. While he’s irritated some colleagues by repeatedly asking for money over the two-year period, Senators might feel indebted to him for agreeing to take the grueling NRSC job in the first place.

Other Republican Senators could still enter the No. 4 Policy Committee chairman hunt, including junior up-and-comers such as Chief Deputy Minority Whip John Thune (S.D.), Sen. Johnny Isakson (Ga.) or Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), who ran unsuccessfully for Republican Conference chairman last year.

Those three have been mentioned along with Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Mel Martinez (Fla.) or Coleman as possible contenders for a third vacancy in the Republican lineup next year — the Conference vice chairmanship now held by Cornyn.

For his part, Thune has remained coy about his future in leadership: “Sen. Thune remains focused on his role as Chief Deputy Whip but will look at other leadership opportunities to serve his caucus,” his spokesman Kyle Downey said Thursday.

Despite the certain shuffling in the lower rungs of the Republican ranks, the top three GOP leaders — Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) — appear secure in their posts for at least another two years. McConnell’s biggest hurdle for the next Congress might be securing a fifth term to the Senate against a well-financed Bruce Lunsford (D), who has been narrowing the gap in recent Kentucky opinion polls.