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Senate GOP Contends Drawn-Out Whip Race Won’t Break Solidarity

Senate Republicans conceded Monday that the looming two-year battle between Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and John Cornyn (Texas) to succeed Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) as Whip could be a troublesome distraction, but they downplayed the effect the campaign would have on Conference unity.

“All in all, it would have been better” for Republicans had the leadership race been delayed, said Kyl, whose decision to not run for re-election in 2012 spawned the contest between Alexander and Cornyn.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) acknowledged that its effect on the Conference was unclear, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said she was surprised to get calls from the prospective candidates so soon after Kyl’s announcement Thursday.

“I think that if it is something that goes on for a long period of time, that’s not necessarily good for us,” said Murkowski, who served as Conference vice chairwoman until late in the summer of 2010. “Usually, with leadership, you don’t even start thinking about it until toward the very end, and you’ve got a month, and that’s about it.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made clear he would not be involved in the race for the No. 2 spot in the GOP leadership “in any way,” despite his four-decade friendship with Alexander, the Conference chairman, and his close personal relationship with Cornyn, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman.

Alexander and Cornyn were still in the process Monday of telephoning colleagues to appeal for support. Additionally, Thune was preparing to join Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) in a run for Conference chairman if the South Dakotan forgoes a run for president. Thune is the GOP Policy Committee chairman, and according to knowledgeable sources, he is also considering jumping into the Whip race.

Thune confirmed Monday that he expects to announce a decision on his White House plans by the end of February.

“We want to deal with the nomination decision, and if we decide not to pursue a national race, look at opportunities around here to contribute,” he said, adding that his decision about whether to run for president is “a work in progress.”

Speaking to Capitol Hill reporters for the first time since launching their head-to-head bid for Whip, Alexander and Cornyn attempted Monday to diminish the campaign’s potential for disruption to the Conference, which appears to be in a solid position to compete for the majority in the 2012 elections.

Alexander said that his first call after deciding to run for Whip was to Cornyn and that his priority would be to focus on the responsibilities of his current post. Sources with knowledge of the Whip campaign said the Tennessee Republican’s pitch to colleagues has been to highlight his close relationships with both moderates and conservatives and his accomplishments as Conference chairman, whose chief task is to hone a unifying political message on key issues.

“The contribution I’ve tried to make to our caucus is to help. We’re more effective when we have a unified Republican message, and sometimes we can do that. When you have 47 Senators with a variety of views, consensus isn’t always possible. But that’s a contribution I’ve tried to make,” Alexander said. “I’ve tried to be even-handed and do that. I’d like to continue to do that as the assistant leader when the time comes.”

Alexander described himself and Cornyn as a “couple of wide receivers” on the same team who both want to play first string. He defended his decision to launch a race for Whip within hours of Kyl’s announcement Thursday morning.

“Most Senators have said to me it’s helpful to know what everyone’s intentions are. So I just thought I should let my colleagues know that I’ve enjoyed being the Conference chairman, won’t be running again, will be running for Whip, and then I’ll go back to business. That decision is so far away that I won’t be spending much time thinking about it,” Alexander said.

Cornyn was less forthcoming about his discussions with colleagues, declining to discuss his sales pitch or the tenor of conversations. However, informed sources indicated that he is emphasizing his achievements as NRSC chairman and the fact that he volunteered for the job at a time when no one else wanted it. Republicans won seven seats last cycle despite initial predictions of further setbacks after heavy losses in 2006 and 2008.

The Whip election will occur after the 2012 elections and include only those Members who will be seated in the 113th Congress. If the GOP has a good year and Members elected in 2010 and 2012 favor Cornyn for his work aiding their campaigns, he could have an advantage.

“I’ve reached out to my colleagues and let them know my interest. But frankly, two years is a long time for a campaign. We’ve got some more important things we’ve got to do right ahead of us,” Cornyn said, adding that the Whip campaign would not adversely affect the Conference. “It shouldn’t. Lamar and I have a very good relationship, and it’s going to be all positive. That’s my intention.”

Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairman John Barrasso, who confirmed that he is interested in moving up in leadership if opportunities arise, was adamant that all of the jockeying would not affect the cohesiveness of the leadership team or the Conference as a whole.

“We’ll continue to work closely together as a Conference,” the Wyoming Republican said. “We’re committed to making sure that we get the country back on track.”

Senate Finance ranking member Orrin Hatch, a veteran in his sixth term, similarly dismissed any suggestion that the shake-up in leadership and early politicking for advancement would have a negative effect on how his GOP colleagues interact.

“They’re just basically expressing their interest in running at the time. They’re both very close friends of mine. It makes it very difficult for all of us,” the Utah Republican said. “They’re adults, they understand, they’re both excellent people. You couldn’t go wrong with either one.”