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Cornyn ratchets up fundraising push amid battle with Thune for Senate GOP leader

<i>AFP/Getty Images via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Sen. John Cornyn
AFP/Getty Images via CNN Newsource
Sen. John Cornyn

By Manu Raju, Ted Barrett and Lauren Fox, CNN

Sen. John Cornyn is privately pitching his fundraising prowess as his under-the-radar campaign against Sen. John Thune to be the next GOP leader in the chamber quietly takes shape behind the scenes.

Cornyn, a former Senate GOP campaign chairman who hails from donor-rich Texas and has spent years building his political operation, is using his fundraising apparatus to send out checks to incumbent senators running for reelection and GOP Senate nominees in key states.

In the first quarter of 2024, Cornyn raised $5.6 million through his joint fundraising arm, called the Cornyn Victory Committee, and to the National Republican Senatorial Committee as well as directly for GOP incumbents and candidates, according to a source familiar with his political operation. The source said the numbers, which are not yet public, total $17.2 million that Cornyn raised for Senate Republican incumbents and candidates this cycle.

The money, which amounts to the most Cornyn has raised in a single quarter since his joint fundraising committee was established in 2021, increased after Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky announced on February 28 that he would not run for leader in the next Congress, ending what will be an 18-year tenure atop the Senate GOP, the longest of any party leader in history. Cornyn raised $2.8 million since the start of the leadership race that began in earnest after McConnell made his announcement, the source said.

The jockeying over fundraising and the candidates’ ties with high-dollar donors are among several key factors that senators say they are considering as they weigh whom to support for the high-stakes race, which will take place after the November elections.

The next leader will have to chart out the GOP’s legislative and political strategy; take the helm of McConnell’s high-spending super PAC, known as the Senate Leadership Fund; and help guide the NRSC, which is the main Senate GOP campaign arm. And they’ll have to raise gobs of cash, recruit key candidates and go toe-to-toe with Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer’s political machine.

Many Republicans remain uncommitted in the battle between Thune and Cornyn, meaning the race for Senate GOP leader lacks a clear frontrunner. Leadership races are secret-ballot affairs, often making them nearly impossible to handicap. Plus, it’s uncertain if others will jump into the race. GOP Sen. Rick Scott told CNN he’s “seriously considering” running for GOP leader if he wins his reelection bid in Florida.

Many Republicans are torn.

“I just think if you take a look at both John Thune’s and John Cornyn’s record, they’ve got a rock-solid record in terms of their reputation and the community,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican of North Carolina who is struggling over whom to back for the job. “They’ve got big shoes to fill in terms of Mitch McConnell because he more or less founded the effort, but I think both of them are up to the task.”

But Thune, too, the No. 2 Republican who hails from a smaller state of South Dakota, has amped up his fundraising, headlining fundraisers for candidates in Washington and around the country, according to a source familiar with Thune’s operation. And he has consistently pulled in big numbers in his own campaign account, with nearly $18 million in cash at the end of last year.

Asked about Cornyn’s fundraising, Thune told CNN, “He’s a good fundraiser. I’m a good fundraiser. We’ll all raise money. We all help the team.”

A source familiar with Thune’s efforts would not provide exact figures of his fundraising totals but said no other senator has raised more money directly for the NRSC this cycle than Thune, except NRSC Chairman Steve Daines of Montana. Thune has attended more than 200 fundraisers this cycle, the source said. (Daines also hasn’t said if he would run for Senate GOP leader.)

Meantime, the source close to Cornyn said – aside from McConnell – the Texas Republican has been the most proficient GOP Senate fundraiser since 2009 and that Cornyn’s fundraising efforts in the 2022 cycle totaled $20 million, behind McConnell and Scott, who was the NRSC chairman at the time.

Asked if he believes his fundraising gives him an edge over Thune, Cornyn told CNN: “I think our members are going to justifiably expect the next leader to do that. Sen. McConnell has done a lot through Senate Leadership Fund, and many of my colleagues have benefited from that especially given the amount of money that Schumer’s super PAC and others raise. But that is just one thing that I think people will consider.”

Several other senators told CNN they trust both Thune and Cornyn to build out their already robust fundraising machines if they were to take over as GOP leader — something that happens naturally for any party leader in Congress.

“I think that would be a strength of everybody I’ve heard running,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican of South Carolina, said about fundraising. “I don’t think that will be a distinguishing factor.”

Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican who has sparred with the current GOP leadership, acknowledged fundraising can’t be completely ignored and “it probably needs to be part of a bigger conversation, but that role has involved some of that so I am sure that it is taken into account.”

Asked if he was satisfied overall with the current candidates in the race, he said, “It is way too early to say that.”

Several senators said that there were a slew of factors they were considering in deciding whom to back for the race, including their records, their leadership style and their own personal relationships too. Some pointed to the candidates’ relationship with former President Donald Trump as well.

One early announced supporter of Thune’s, Sen. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma, said fundraising is important but that he backs Thune for other leadership qualities he sees in him.

“As far as fundraising, that is part of your job, right, but also to be an effective leader in the Senate is your job, too,” Mullin said. “So it all – it’s an all-complete package.”

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