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Early, Long Whip Race Will Test GOP Cohesion

What has been a remarkably cohesive and collegial Senate Republican leadership team threatens to be torn asunder over the next 18 months by a potentially divisive race for Whip and additional jockeying for other top Conference posts.

Aides to Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and John Cornyn (Texas) insist that the close personal friendship shared by the two Republican leaders will prevent their competition to succeed Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) as Whip from becoming bitter. Similarly, Sen. Mike Johanns (Neb.), bidding to replace Alexander as Conference chairman, predicted little negative fallout from the leadership contests.

But with nearly the entire 112th Congress to fight it out and the high stakes involved, the professional and personal relationships of a Republican team often described as close-knit and complementary will undoubtedly be tested, as will the group’s ability to deliver for rank-and-file Members. Alexander, Johanns and Cornyn, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, all hit the phones looking for votes within an hour of Kyl’s Thursday announcement that he won’t seek re-election in 2012.

“One of the key areas to watch will be the activity during leadership meetings and how they work together,” a former Senate Republican leadership aide said. “It’s going to matter around the leadership table and how they showcase themselves.”

This former aide predicted the first year could see a “quieter” campaign and added, “It’s going to be the election year where the intensity will ratchet up.”

On the House side, a long and bitter campaign for Democratic Whip between Reps. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Steny Hoyer (Md.) years ago kept tension high. Pelosi won the 2001 vote, and their frayed relationship never was fully repaired.

Alexander and Cornyn going head-to-head for the No. 2 Whip slot, and Johanns running in a so-far-uncontested race for the No. 3 Conference chairman position might only be the beginning of a wider leadership shake-up as Republican Senators seek promotions.

Policy Committee Chairman John Thune is considering a run for Whip as well, should he decide against running for president — the South Dakota Republican and fourth-ranking leader plans to reveal his plans by month’s end. Meanwhile, Conference Vice Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.), who ranks fifth and only entered leadership last fall, is eyeing Thune’s position as well as the NRSC.

Johanns expressed confidence in an interview Friday that the multiple intra-Conference campaigns would not sow caucus disunity. “We’re all on the same team,” he said. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) does not endorse in leadership races as a matter of policy and is not expected to discuss the matter publicly. However, McConnell has been friends with Alexander for four decades, and the two are confidants.

The votes will not occur until after the 2012 elections. Any new Senators elected would have votes, potentially giving Cornyn the advantage given his position at the NRSC.

Whom Republicans favor as an eventual successor to McConnell could be a factor in the outcome of the Whip contest. Should Cornyn or Thune replace Kyl as the No. 2, either might be seen as having an advantage toward becoming the Republican Leader whenever McConnell retires. The Kentuckian is up for re-election in 2014. He’s said he plans to run. If Senate Republicans want to leave their options open, Alexander might appeal as a placeholder who is unlikely to run for Leader, depending on the Tennesseean’s ambitions.

“Whoever wants to replace McConnell would be pleased to have Lamar in the second slot,” a Republican lobbyist with Senate relationships said. “If you allow Cornyn or Thune to replace Kyl, you are probably signaling who the next Leader is. This makes vote-counting hard because some of your competitors will vote for Lamar to keep their pathway cleared.”

The Senate campaign in Arizona to succeed Kyl could also be competitive and contentious, although the Republicans appear more organized in their efforts to hold the open seat in a state that leans Republican. However, the Democrats are optimistic about their prospects and believe recent population gains benefit their side. President Barack Obama briefly considered making a campaign push in Arizona in the 2008 presidential race but opted against it when Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) became the nominee.

Considered a frontrunner at the outset and expected to announce his candidacy soon is Rep. Jeff Flake (R). Former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, beaten badly by McCain in the 2010 GOP Senate primary, is interested in running again in 2012. Rep. Trent Franks (R) is examining a bid but is not expected to jump in, and freshman Rep. Ben Quayle (R) has been floating his name.

But Quayle’s father, former vice president and Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle (R), is telling people he would prefer that his son wait and run for McCain’s seat when Arizona’s senior Senator calls it quits, according to a Republican strategist based in the Grand Canyon State. 

None of the current statewide GOP officeholders are expected to run at this point, including the governor, attorney general and treasurer.

State Senate President Russell Pearce is out, but he plans to run for Flake’s House seat and was on the phone making endorsement calls Thursday evening. 

One notable Republican who is thinking of running is Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has made national headlines over the years for his tough stance on crime and illegal immigration. Arpaio has hinted he might be more interested in national office. 

Among Democrats, several names are being discussed, but it remains unclear who is giving serious consideration to running.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, former Arizona governor and state attorney general, has made calls over the past few weeks to gauge support for a Senate bid. She could emerge as the early frontrunner. Wealthy businessman Jim Pederson, who challenged Kyl in 2006, isn’t saying no, and Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon could run. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — currently recovering from an attempted assassination — could enter the race as late as April 2012 and still raise enough money to be competitive.

Democrats in the state have told reporters that Giffords should have the “right of first refusal” to run for the seat.

“Things are moving fast,” the Arizona Republican strategist said.

Roll Call Politics rates this race Leans Republican.

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