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Senate Whip Race Has Gone Dark

Correction Appended

Senate GOP Whip contenders have put their ambitions on ice for now, following a backlash from rank-and-file Republicans concerned that a public intraparty power struggle might sow discord and alienate voters in the midst of a national fiscal crisis.

After Minority Whip Jon Kyl announced his retirement in February, GOP Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) quickly publicized their bids to succeed the Arizonan as the No. 2 Senate Republican in the next Congress. Their moves led to jockeying by other ambitious Republicans seeking to advance into Cornyn’s and Alexander’s spots, and heated contests for at least three of the top GOP leadership positions ensued for about two weeks.

Though jockeying quietly continues behind the scenes, Senators involved in the Whip and other leadership races put the brakes on their public campaigning after being admonished by a few of the rank and file in private Conference gatherings. According to GOP sources, Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) was among the most vocal — warning fellow Republicans that internal squabbling at a time when the nation was looking to Congress to address serious problems was an unnecessary distraction and bad politics.

Coburn was unavailable for comment Wednesday, but other Republicans confirmed that GOP Senators forcefully urged leadership candidates to quash their campaigning. All of the Republican Senators interviewed for this story said the candidates complied and the contests have been barely noticeable in the 10 weeks since things quieted down.

“Members were direct with everybody: Now is not the time, it’s too far away,” Chief Deputy Minority Whip Richard Burr (N.C.) said. “Most of the guys over here have been through the House. In House elections, they have a defined starting point and a defined ending point. They don’t run from Congress to Congress. I think that message got out and everybody sort of cooled their jets.”

“People stepped up and said that they would prefer not to see this discussed right now,” added Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), a former House Whip who is no stranger to leadership battles. “That seems to be the position everybody has accepted.”

Still, it’s not as if the Whip race in particular has been completely pushed out of Senators’ minds.

In what some Republican sources described as a proxy for the Whip campaign to come, Alexander and Cornyn found themselves on opposite sides of a controversial judicial nomination Wednesday. Both voted against John McConnell, nominated by President Barack Obama to the U.S. District Court. But, unlike Cornyn, Alexander broke with the majority of his conference in opposing its attempt to filibuster the nomination. GOP sources indicated that the Texan might attempt to use Alexander’s vote against him when the Whip race is re-engaged next year.

But Republican operatives on and off Capitol Hill say Cornyn’s best chance for beating Alexander — the No. 3 GOP Senator and a close confidant of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) — would be to win the Senate majority in 2012. Cornyn earned wide praise from his colleagues last cycle for turning what looked to be a tough cycle into a seven-seat gain. Just a four-seat gain would give the GOP a 51-vote majority in 2012.

Alexander has strong relationships across the party’s ideological spectrum and is adept at working the Senate’s parliamentary levers. Still, he, too, appears to be making moves designed to build support. Although within his purview as the Senate GOP’s chief messenger, it appears to be no accident that he has partnered recently with fellow Republicans on key issues. Alexander has worked with Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio) on his jobs plan and with South Carolina Sens. Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham on opposing an Obama labor policy.

Alexander and Cornyn were hesitant to discuss the Whip contest when queried on Wednesday, tacitly acknowledging their colleagues’ preference that the race lie dormant until the summer of 2012, when Senate Republicans expect it to heat up and stay that way through Election Day.

“We have $4-a-gallon gasoline and a debt to work on, and other Republican Senators would be very unhappy if they thought that either one of us was spending time fooling around with an internal leadership contest that doesn’t happen for a year and one half,” Alexander said.

Added Cornyn: “I think everybody realizes that the country is at a crossroads and there are more important things we need to be doing right now than thinking about an election that won’t be held until November of 2012.”

Of course, Alexander and Cornyn are not the only Republicans who’d like to move up in the hierarchy.

Sen. Mike Johanns (Neb.) revealed his intention to run for Conference chairman soon after Alexander announced for Whip. Republican Conference Vice Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.) has acknowledged his interest in advancing as well. The No. 4 Republican, Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.), said Wednesday that he remains undecided as to what leadership position he will seek, but he said he is leaving all of his options open.

Thune acknowledged that there had been anxiety among his Republican colleagues that, if the leadership contests for the 113th Congress kicked off too early, the fight would create division and make it impossible for Members to focus on jobs, government spending and other issues.

“Everybody has sworn off getting distracted on that issue when there are so many other things we need to focus on and that we want to stay united on,” Thune said.

“There seemed to be a strong consensus — let’s just put that off until next year,” DeMint added.

Correction: May 5, 2011

The article misrepresented Sen. Lamar Alexander’s (R-Tenn.) position on a judicial nomination. Alexander voted against the nomination of John McConnell to be a U.S. district court judge. However, he broke with the majority of his party to end debate on the nomination.

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