Republicans Nod to Trump’s Influence in Race to Succeed McConnell

With nine months before Senate Republicans select their new leader to succeed Senator Mitch McConnell, some are acknowledging the shadow of one figure outside Congress who looms over the race: former President Donald J. Trump.

“He’s the Republican front-runner; he’s going to have a voice in it,” Senator Mike Rounds, Republican of South Dakota, said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “The former president will have the opportunity to influence a number of my colleagues, but we also want to be able to have a good working relationship with him if he becomes the next president of the United States.”

It was a reminder of Mr. Trump’s potential ability to make or break any senator’s bid for the post atop the Senate Republican conference. And it underscored a political reality that Mr. McConnell acknowledged in announcing his decision last week to step away from leadership — that the party’s base, deeply committed to Mr. Trump, had so firmly taken over that Mr. McConnell, who does not speak to the former president, could not tenably remain its leader.

Senators John Cornyn of Texas and John Thune of South Dakota, two contenders in the race, have been critical of Mr. Trump, though they have both endorsed him in his 2024 campaign in recent weeks. A third John, Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, the No. 3 Senate Republican, may also jump into the race. He has maintained close ties to Mr. Trump and positioned himself to the right of Mr. Cornyn and Mr. Thune.

Senator Markwayne Mullin, Republican of Oklahoma, suggested on Sunday that Mr. Trump should stay out of the race.

“It’s a lose-lose situation,” Mr. Mullin, who is backing Mr. Thune, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “He needs to work with whatever leader is there, and let me tell you, whatever leader’s there understands that they’re going to have to work with President Trump, too. So it’s really not in his best interest to lean in the race at this point.”

But he acknowledged Mr. Trump’s potential influence, adding, “However, if he chooses to do it, it will make a difference.”

Mr. Rounds emphasized that Senate Republicans would make their own decisions on whom to elect as their new leader and on when to buck the former president.

“We’ve got a lot of independent thinkers,” he said, noting that he was looking for a leader who would be willing to stand up to Mr. Trump.

“I want someone who will work with the president but also will stand his own ground,” Mr. Rounds, who supports Mr. Thune’s bid, said, adding that he believed Mr. Thune would be “independent enough where he will look out — just like Mitch did — for the institution of the Senate itself.”

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