WASHINGTON -- The battle of the Johns sounds like a Game of Thrones episode but the phrase has long been Capitol Hill shorthand for Senate Republicans' looming fight to replace Mitch McConnell as their leader.
That's because the trio of top contenders share the same first name: Sens. John Thune of South Dakota, John Barrasso of Wyoming and John Cornyn of Texas.
McConnell, 81, has held the position since 2007. Unlike whip and other lower party leadership posts, the top job is not subject to term limits.
McConnell said this week he intends to finish his term as leader, which runs through the end of next year, and his Senate term, which runs through 2026. Recent health incidents have raised questions about his ability to do so.
The contenders have all been publicly supportive of McConnell's leadership, but that hasn't quelled speculation.
Thune is often cited as the frontrunner. He's the No. 2 and subbed in after McConnell fell and suffered a concussion earlier this year. At 62, he would present a young, or at least younger, face in a conference that includes its share of septuagenarians.
Barrasso, 71, is generally viewed as the most conservative of the three and has done a somewhat better job of staying on former President Donald Trump's good side.
Cornyn, also 71, brings deep experience, having served as McConnell's No. 2 before the party's term limits for lower-ranking leaders required him to give up that post. For four years, he was head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is responsible for maximizing the number of Republicans elected to the Senate.
He remains a top McConnell lieutenant and has taken the lead on significant bipartisan measures, including the gun deal that followed the school massacre in Uvalde last year.
He also has a not-so-secret weapon his rivals lack: the ability to raise massive amounts of campaign cash and spread it around to his colleagues.
When the battle to succeed McConnell truly starts, Cornyn will have substantial chits to cash in from those efforts in addition to the promise of future fundraising.
A joint fundraising entity called the Cornyn Victory Committee raised about $11 million in the 2022 election that helped fill the coffers of the NRSC or flowed directly to dozens of candidates across the country.
He helped drum up an additional $9 million for the NRSC and candidates through other fundraising events for that election, according to the Cornyn campaign.
Republican senators, the same ones responsible for picking who gets coveted leadership positions, are grateful.
"You can have all the wonderful ideas in the world but if you don't get elected, lots of luck implementing them," said Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, who received about $374,000 from Cornyn's committee on his way to reelection last year.
He described Cornyn as Senate Republicans' most effective fundraiser after McConnell and said colleagues appreciate his willingness to travel and do the painful, awkward work of constantly asking people for money.
"It takes money and somebody's got to do it. And Cornyn really does it well," he said.
The Cornyn Victory Fund has received donations from many states but a slew of Texas homebuilders, investment gurus and other business leaders have been stalwarts. Some of its largest donors are prominent, wealthy Texans:
Sarah Perot and Ross Perot Jr., who is chairman of the Perot Companies and Hillwood, contributed more than $846,000.
Kelcy Warren, executive chairman of Dallas oil and gas pipeline giant Energy Transfer, one of the largest publicly traded companies in North Texas, has given more than $600,000, along with his wife Amy Warren.
J.C. Walter III, chairman of Houston-based Walter Oil & Gas Corp. and his wife Paula have contributed more than $648,000.
Houston beer magnate John Nau III, who has served as Cornyn's national finance chairman, has contributed more than $564,000. He's chairman and CEO of Silver Eagle Beverages, one of the largest Anheuser-Busch distributors in the country.
"No one outside of Leader McConnell has raised more to elect conservatives to the United States Senate over the last decade than John Cornyn, and he is laser-focused on putting Texas muscle behind retaking the majority in 2024," Nau said in a statement.
None of this means Cornyn is about to shove McConnell out the door.
He has consistently said McConnell should hold the job for as long as he wants and can still perform his duties, but Cornyn is candid about his interest in one day succeeding the man he describes as a mentor.
"He's trained me," Cornyn said. "Everything I've learned about the Senate I've learned from Senator McConnell. He's the best, most effective leader that I've served under."
Asked why he wants the job, Cornyn began ticking through the foundation he's laid for the role, from his time as the whip, which involves wrangling support from an at-times fractious conference, to his stints leading the NRSC.
Then he cut himself off.
"That's a discussion for a future date. I don't anticipate that happening anytime soon," he said of McConnell's departure.
During his regular weekly news conference in late July, McConnell was making his opening remarks when he trailed off and stared straight ahead silently for about 20 seconds before being escorted away. He returned a short time later and asserted he was fine.
He was fielding questions from reporters after a Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce event at the end of August when he was asked about a potential 2026 reelection run. He began answering the question before suddenly stopping and standing still for about 30 seconds.
Cornyn downplayed the significance of those incidents and expressed confidence in McConnell's ability to do the job.
"Unfortunately the two instances that occurred, occurred on camera talking to members of the press, so I think people have the idea that this is a bigger deal than I now believe it is," Cornyn said.
One wild card is the influence Trump could exert if he decides to weigh in on a succession contest, especially if he's the Republican nominee for president.
Cornyn has said the party should go with anyone but Trump in 2024, which prompted the Trump camp to blast him as part of the so-called "deep state."
Trump has also slammed Thune as a RINO, or Republican In Name Only, and dissed Barrasso as McConnell's "flunky."
Senate leadership elections are held by secret ballot, which could blunt the effect of a public pressure campaign by Trump or anyone else.
Brandon Rottinghaus, professor of political science at the University of Houston, said relationships within the conference will prove key to who wins the fight and Cornyn has done everything needed to position himself for the job.
"He's waited his turn. He's raised a bunch of money. He's campaigned for colleagues. And he's delivered on legislative promises," Rottinghaus said. "That's what you'd expect a leader-in-waiting to do."
Cornyn supporters point to his work moving conservative judges through the confirmation process as a member of the Judiciary Committee and say he's balanced national politics with Texas priorities from hurricane disaster relief to promoting new semiconductor chip manufacturing facilities.
Rottinghaus said Cornyn could face resistance from the most conservative senators. He has earned the ire of the party's right wing by supporting bipartisan measures such as the recent omnibus spending bill and the debt ceiling compromise.
And that gun bill is a double-edged sword. It demonstrated Cornyn's ability to move legislation, even on contentious subjects, through a polarized Congress and helped defuse the issue for Republicans ahead of the midterms.
It also upset hardline gun rights advocates, earning him censure from county parties in Texas and boos at the state GOP convention.
Cornyn's ace in the hole could prove to be the dollars he brings in for fellow Senate Republicans through relationships he's maintained going back to his days running the NRSC.
That's especially vital as Republicans try to regain the Senate majority, a goal that eluded them last fall.
For the 2024 election, Cornyn's joint fundraising committee has raised $6.3 million for candidates and the party's Senate campaign arm, according to the Cornyn campaign.
Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, who chairs the Republican Policy Committee, said financial support for colleagues is a "very big deal" when it comes to leadership elections. She pointed to the massive $50 million haul McConnell helped bring in during the August break.
"So he's not slowing down anytime soon," she said. "But John Cornyn has been doing this for a very long time, going back to his time at the NRSC. He continues to raise a lot of money for colleagues and potential candidates."
©2023 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.