Mitch McConnell Comes Out on Top

Sen. Joni Ernst looks on as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell smiles during a news conference. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell emerged from the Old Senate Chamber on Wednesday, the Kentucky Republican offered a thumbs-up to the flashing cameras nearby. 

He had just overcome Sen. Rick Scott’s challenge to remain Republican leader in the Senate by a vote of 36-10. One senator voted present. “I’m pretty proud of 37-10,” he told reporters, flanked by his new leadership team.

The challenge to McConnell was largely symbolic—expressing frustration from a small wing of Senate Republicans but ultimately futile in unseating McConnell as leader. It’s unclear what the dust-up means for the conference’s cohesion, with at least two more years of being the minority party in the Senate.

That the vote was held Wednesday was a McConnell victory in itself: Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas had sought to delay it until after the runoff elections in Georgia, but Republicans voted 32-16 in favor of holding the elections as scheduled. 

Hanging over the more than three hours that lawmakers met behind closed doors before the elections was the GOP’s lackluster midterm performance last week, and questions about the direction of the party going forward. 

“Everybody wanted to talk. And we all said something,” Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama said of Wednesday’s drawn-out meeting. He said he supported McConnell. “Everybody wanted to know the path that we’re going to take. Not looking at the past, looking to the future.”

“Any time you lose an election, you’re going to have a reevaluation of leadership and policy,” Sen. Mitt Romney, who also supported McConnell, said. “There’s overwhelming support for Mitch McConnell and his leadership. He has been highly successful in the last two years, not to mention in the last decades, and I believe he’s in the best position to lead us into the future.”

McConnell blamed the 2022 losses on the party’s inability to win over centrist voters, promising to pursue policies “within the 40-yard lines.” He has also argued poor candidates cost Republicans seats in an otherwise favorable environment.

In announcing his challenge, Scott, who headed the Senate Republican campaign arm in the run-up to the elections, offered an alternative explanation: “We must start saying what we are for, not just what we are against,” he wrote in a letter to members of the caucus Tuesday. 

But even some of Scott’s allies suddenly seem more confident that McConnell will be able to assuage those concerns moving forward.

“I feel better about that now than I ever have,” Sen. Mike Braun, who supported Scott, said post-meeting. He said he believes Republicans are “going to craft three or four things. When you have a mission statement, a business plan. That’s been my main beef since I’ve been here … I think we’re going to end up doing that out of all this.”

Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy—a McConnell supporter—told The Dispatch he believes how Republicans perform in future elections “is going to rise and fall on whether or not we presented a vision to the American people that they buy into.”

Scott’s criticism of McConnell’s leadership had also included charges that Republicans habitually “cave” to Democrats—but Cassidy, unprompted, touted the bipartisan accomplishments Scott disdains. He said last year’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill landed well with voters in his home state: “I could talk about how we had passed legislation that was going to make their lives better.”

“If we can do more of that, we’re going to win,” he added.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a staunch McConnell ally, attributed dissatisfaction within the caucus to how the Senate operates in general, saying members don’t have as many opportunities to shape legislation as they did when he was first elected. In a veiled swipe at Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, he said the only people with a voice in legislation are those in leadership: “Rank and file members are essentially left to vote up or down.”

“People don’t get elected to the United States Senate to be shut out of the discussion,” Cornyn said.

McConnell, who has been Republican leader since 2007, is now set to become the longest-serving Senate leader, surpassing the previous record of 16 years held by the late Montana Sen. Mike Mansfield, who was the Democratic leader from 1961 to 1977.

All other GOP leadership posts went uncontested Wednesday: Sen. John Thune of South Dakota won reelection to his third term serving as whip, Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming won conference chair, and Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa won the position of policy chair, replacing retiring Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia won conference vice chair, succeeding Ernst.

Sen. Steve Daines of Montana was elected as chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), succeeding Scott. The NRSC’s task is to help get Republicans elected to the Senate—and Daines will have the good fortune of presiding over a favorable electoral map for 2024, when several Democrats are up for reelection in red and purple states including West Virginia and Arizona, and in his own home state.

During Wednesday’s closed-door vote, at least two Republican senators suggested an audit or review of how the NRSC spent its resources under Scott’s leadership, Politico reported. But what such a review would look like is still unclear. The audit reportedly would be a financial review taking a look at how the campaign arm directed its money in the leadup to the midterms.

For now, McConnell’s control over the caucus remains. But what did Scott’s challenge mean for the party going into the next Congress?

“I don’t think it has any meaning whatsoever,” Cassidy said.

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