Alexander exit shuffles top of GOP

Sen. Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderWeek ahead: Trump nominees brace for round two of hearings Trump education pick to face Warren, Sanders 9 GOP senators Trump must watch out for MORE’s (Tenn.) surprising decision to leave the Republican leadership team has significantly reshuffled the GOP hierarchy.

The big winner of Tuesday’s developments was Cornyn, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) chairman, who is now considered McConnell’s heir. 

It appears unlikely that a Republican senator will challenge Cornyn to replace Senate GOP Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), who is retiring at the end of his term. 

Cornyn, however, remained cautious: “I don’t take anything for granted. Other people could get in the race.”

Sen. Richard BurrRichard BurrTrump education pick to face Warren, Sanders Senate Intel panel to probe Trump team's ties to Russia Trump's CIA nominee seeks to calm nerves MORE (R-N.C.) told Politico at press time that he might run against Cornyn. Burr would be considered a heavy underdog.

Alexander, the Senate Republican Conference chairman who defeated Burr for his post in 2007, had been expected to run for the Senate whip slot. But Alexander reconsidered, saying on Tuesday he felt “liberated” to once again become a rank-and-file senator. He will remain as conference chairman until January 2012.

Thune, the fourth-ranking Senate Republican, quickly announced his candidacy for Alexander’s post. Thune has not ruled out challenging Cornyn following the 2012 election.

Meanwhile, Sen. John BarrassoJohn BarrassoOvernight Energy: Former Exxon chief Tillerson takes the hot seat Republicans scramble on ObamaCare replacement plan Dem: EPA pick should answer questions before hearing MORE (Wyo.), the vice chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, said Tuesday he will launch a bid to replace Thune in the 113th Congress.

It is unclear who will vie for Barrasso’s No. 5 leadership post.

In his floor speech announcing his decision, Alexander, 71, said stepping down will let him be more aggressive on certain issues.

“I look forward to this. The Senate was designed to be the forum for confronting the most difficult issues producing the biggest disagreements. … It would help to produce better results if we senators knew one another better across party lines,” Alexander said. 

Alexander, a former governor, Cabinet official and presidential candidate, vowed on Tuesday to run for reelection in 2014. 

Cornyn had been considered a favorite against Alexander, who lost a bid to become GOP whip following the 2006 elections. Alexander lost that race to then-Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) by one vote. 

Alexander’s voting record is not as conservative as Cornyn’s, which would have likely been a major factor in the race. 

Cornyn has attracted praise from his GOP colleagues for heading the NRSC during the 2010 cycle, when Republicans cut into the Democratic majority. The Texas Republican signed up for another term as campaign chairman, and said he hopes to make McConnell the chamber’s majority leader in 2013.

Running against Cornyn under that scenario would have been an uphill climb. Independent political analysts believe the GOP has a good shot to win back the Senate, pointing to President Obama’s low approval ratings and the fact that Democrats are defending 23 seats in 2012 and Republicans are defending only 10.

Alexander, best known for the red plaid shirt he wore during his 1996 run for the White House, never seemed fully comfortable in the Senate leadership.

Throughout his career, he has bucked his party on issues ranging from the environment to troop withdrawal in Iraq to the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. He also formed a bipartisan Members Group with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

Alexander said, “I decided that the best job in the Senate is to be a senator.”

Future Republican leadership did not seem to be completely decided — as of Tuesday it was unclear who the contenders would be to succeed Barrasso. 

Republicans said they were stunned about Alexander’s decision. 

Barrasso said he was “surprised, and if I could have talked him out of it, I would have.”

“He’s obviously given a lot of thought to it and made that decision at this point rather than down the trail so others can plan what courses they want to take — what offices they want to seek,” Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) said. 

After Alexander finished his floor speech, McConnell praised the two-term senator and said repeatedly that “this is not a eulogy.” 

“Really, I think I have a great sense of relief that my friend is going to run again in 2014 and continue to make an extraordinary contribution to the Senate and to America,” McConnell said. “It’s hard to think of anybody who’s done more things well.”

There was a lot of chatter on Capitol Hill Tuesday about Cornyn succeeding McConnell at some point as the Senate GOP leader. 

McConnell has made it clear he will be running for reelection in 2014.