McConnell Won’t Get Involved in Vice Chairman Race

Posted September 3, 2010 at 6:00pm

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will sit on the sidelines in the forthcoming leadership election to replace Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the Conference vice chairwoman who was unexpectedly ousted last month in the Alaska GOP primary.

According to a senior Republican Senate aide, McConnell has no plans to recruit anyone to run for the fifth-ranking leadership slot, urge anyone to seek the post or lobby the Conference to support one candidate over another once the race is joined. The two most likely candidates are first-term Sens. John Barrasso (Wyo.) and Mike Johanns (Neb.), according to Republican Senate sources.

“McConnell is staying out of the vice chair race,” the senior GOP Senate aide said. “He isn’t touching it.”

Murkowski’s exit comes as McConnell also prepares to lose two trusted confidants from his inner circle: Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who is retiring after three terms, and Sen. Bob Bennett, who finished third in a vote of Utah GOP convention delegates and failed to qualify for his state’s primary. Bennett and Gregg do not serve in elected leadership positions but were tapped by McConnell as leadership advisers.

McConnell regularly relied on Gregg and Bennett for policy and strategy advice; he turned to Murkowski, the ranking member on Energy and Natural Resources, for counsel on energy policy and on how to approach President Barack Obama’s environmental agenda.

Barrasso, an orthopedic surgeon, earned Conference-wide credibility last year when he helped lead GOP opposition to Obama’s new health care law. While quiet about his interest in succeeding Murkowski, Johanns, a former governor and Agriculture secretary, is ambitious and has also been an outspoken critic of administration policies.

But a major factor in which of these individuals replaces Murkowski — or whether the post falls to someone else entirely — will be the November elections. The number of new Republicans and the ideological bent of the new Conference could determine who wins the job. The makeup of what is likely to be a larger GOP caucus could also affect who McConnell turns to for advice and whether he taps anyone to replace Bennett and Gregg in his unelected inner circle.

“What’s important in filling out a leadership team is getting people who reflect the concerns of the Conference as a whole and having lines of communication into various Members of the Conference,” the senior Republican Senate aide said. “It’s about trust. Members don’t vote for the coolest guy — it’s not a prom king. It’s someone who has their best interests in mind and can reflect their concerns.”

The rest of GOP leadership team appears stable heading into the 112th Congress, with the top four Republicans already planning to seek another term in their current positions. McConnell will return as GOP Leader, Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) will remain Whip, Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) will return as Conference chairman and Sen. John Thune (S.D.) will remain Policy Committee chairman.

Sen. John Cornyn (Texas) is also likely to raise his hand for another term as National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, and he is expected to win the post if he does.

That means that the vice chairmanship may be the only intraparty leadership contest to watch.

Barrasso and Johanns have conservative voting records and would face little political fallout at home from joining leadership — a role that requires supporting certain positions and opposing Obama.

Barrasso cut his teeth during the health care debate. Johanns has been compared by some to Gregg, the Budget ranking member who understands both politics and policy.

Some Republican operatives have suggested Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) may also be a candidate to replace Murkowski, given his popularity among conservatives and good working relationship with McConnell. But those familiar with Coburn’s thinking said he does not want the job, nor would he want a formal role in McConnell’s kitchen cabinet. Still, McConnell may turn to Coburn to more regularly in the next Congress, particularly to take the pulse of like-minded Conference conservatives.

“Coburn will never want to be on the team because then you have to be good when you walk out of the leadership meeting,” according to one Republican who works downtown. “Barrasso is a good option. He would be Coburn’s choice for a conservative addition.”

McConnell recently appointed Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas) to serve as an adviser. Hutchison, who held several leadership positions until she relinquished the Policy Committee helm last year to focus on what ultimately was an unsuccessful gubernatorial bid, will likely retire in 2012. Most Republicans don’t believe Hutchison would jump back into a elected role next Congress and make a bid for Conference vice chairman.

McConnell’s style has been to cultivate close relationships outside of the immediate leadership team, with the goal of to maintaining several lines of communication throughout the Conference, hearing various points of view and then coming to a consensus.

Alexander, who has known McConnell for 40 years dating back to their days as Senate aides, is considered the Minority Leader’s closest confidant among the elected leadership.

Of the five elected leadership positions, the Conference vice chairmanship is seen as the least influential, leaving some Republican strategists to suggest that Murkowski won’t be missed.

But others contend that the Alaskan — the only female in elected leadership —offered a unique perspective that “people would argue is important,” the senior Republican Senate aide said, while noting that Murkowski’s expertise on energy might come in handy if such issues return to prominence in 2011. “When going into a Congress where cap-and-trade could be high profile, that could be extraordinarily important.”