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Will Cornyn Take McConnell’s Place atop Senate GOP?

Texas' senior senator re-embraces Trump as he vies to become the chamber’s top Republican. That won’t come easy.


Justin Miller has brown hair, a light beard and mustache and is wearing a corduroy button down over a dark t-shirt.

A version of this story ran in the March / April 2024 issue.

In the wake of the Uvalde school shooting in 2022, U.S. Senator John Cornyn bucked his party’s base by leading the passage of a minor reform to federal gun laws. He tried to make his case in a speech to a hostile crowd at his own state’s GOP convention, persisting through 20 minutes of boos. After the bill was signed into law, Cornyn rode the high with a promise to strike a deal on another political third rail: immigration. 

This sort of quasi-maverickism has earned Cornyn a reputation as the proverbial adult in the room, the closest thing Texas politics has to an elder statesman. Of course, Cornyn benefits from a generous grading curve thanks to peers like Senator Ted Cruz, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton, and Governor Greg Abbott. 

But reputations, especially when burnished with a senatorially silver coiffure, can be deceiving. Cornyn has no interest in following ex-Senators John McCain and Mitt Romney into maverick martyrdom. Any inkling of principle that Cornyn may show is eclipsed by his aims for higher power. 

As a longtime top lieutenant for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, Cornyn has for years made it known that he aspires to the throne once the aged Kentuckian steps down—a time that is now fast approaching. The 81-year-old McConnell—who has been in office since the Reagan administration and has led his party in the Senate since 2006—has been plagued by very public health problems and a hostile relationship with Donald Trump. On Wednesday, McConnell announced that he will step down as leader this November.

Cornyn has spent the better part of the past decade positioning himself as McConnell’s heir apparent. While their shared brand of genteel corporate conservatism came under siege by blunt-force Trumpism, Cornyn played the loyal good ol’ boy, diligently staying in the good graces of Trump—or at least avoiding being the target of his wrath. 

After Trump’s loss in November 2020, and his overt attempt to overturn the election results, Cornyn made no secret of his hope for the former president to go gently into that humid Mar-a-Lago night. It certainly would have simplified his own aims in the Senate. Last year, Cornyn urged his fellow Republicans to find “a candidate who can actually win.” 

“I think President Trump’s time has passed him by,” he said. Still, as challengers lined up to take on Trump, Cornyn vowed to remain neutral. 

But it didn’t take long for Texas’ senior senator to recognize reality. After Trump’s decisive primary victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, Cornyn swiftly called the game. “I have seen enough,” Cornyn declared on social media. “To beat Biden, Republicans need to unite around a single candidate, and it’s clear that President Trump is Republican voters’ choice.” 

Since first getting elected U.S. senator in 2002, Cornyn has handled his tenure in Washington with finesse: as a dogged champion of Bush-era conservatism, an eager attack dog against Obama liberalism, then as a handmaiden to the GOP’s craven turn under Trump. 

Now, Cornyn is one of the “three Johns,” along with senators Thune from South Dakota and Barrasso of Wyoming, who are seen as the most likely members to succeed McConnell at the helm of the body’s Republican conference. (Whether that’s as leader of the majority or minority remains to be seen.)

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In the likely event that a once-quiet campaign for Senate GOP leader becomes an open battle royale, Cornyn’s path to power could get treacherous. For several years now, Trump allies like Steve Bannon have been trying to oust McConnell and his acolytes from the Senate to replace them with MAGA loyalists. Among Trump’s base, Cornyn may be tolerated at best; at worst, he’s an emblem of the “RINO” globalists who use the clubby confines of the Senate to block much of the MAGA agenda.

Take immigration, for instance. Cornyn has helped lead the Republican push to use foreign aid funding to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan to extract immigration and border security concessions from President Joe Biden. But such a Senate deal is a nonstarter for Trump-aligned House Republicans, who are demanding passage of their own draconian border bill. 

By January, the potential deal was floundering. Trump pressured Senate Republicans to kill the effort in order to deny Biden a possible legislative victory and keep the issue ripe for the former’s imminent return to power. Cornyn, who was not among the inner circle of Senate negotiators, largely struck a noncommittal pose in the long leadup to the bill’s release. In early February, the proposal was finally unveiled—only to be given the kiss of death by House GOP leadership within hours.

While Cornyn has studiously accumulated power and influence in D.C., his stature in Republican politics back home has steadily eroded. He’s managed to avoid any serious primary challengers, but the tides have turned and the former president’s closest allies in Texas have grown outwardly hostile to Cornyn. Chief among them: Ken Paxton. 

At the state GOP convention back in 2022, Paxton followed up Cornyn’s ill-received speech with a direct snipe at the senator. “We have some Republicans who are trying to run from the fight, and we need to remember their names next time they’re on the ballot,” Paxton proclaimed. As a former Texas attorney general himself, Cornyn had blasted Paxton’s (alleged) extensive corruption as a stain on the office. 

As Paxton faced down impeachment charges for those same allegations this past summer, rumors began swirling that the AG might be eying a primary challenge against Cornyn when the latter’s seat is next up in 2026. 

Fresh off his full acquittal by the Texas Senate this past September, Paxton doubled down in an interview with Tucker Carlson. “To me, [Cornyn]’s been in Washington too long. He’s been there, what, for 14 years or so? And I can’t think of a single thing he’s accomplished for our state or even for the country,” Paxton said. “Everything’s on the table for me. … I think it’s time somebody needs to step up and run against this guy.”

The senior senator hasn’t let Paxton’s targeted attacks go unanswered. When the AG went after his vote to approve a foreign aid funding package untethered to a border bill last month, Cornyn shot back in a tweet: “Ken, your criminal defense lawyers are calling to suggest you spend less time pushing Russian propaganda and more time defending longstanding felony charges against you in Houston, as well as ongoing federal grand jury proceedings in San Antonio that will probably result in further criminal charges.”

Cornyn has been patiently biding his time in hopes of becoming the next Senate leader, a post not held by a Texan since Lyndon Baines Johnson. LBJ himself learned long ago, during his initial failed presidential nomination bids, that power in Washington’s upper chamber doesn’t always translate to currency back home, a lesson Cornyn may be learning too. The silver-haired Texan might have the juice left to reach his caucus’ helm, but any hope for a smooth ascent—just like his wish for Trump to fade away—has likely evaporated.