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Mitch McConnell’s Future as Leader Uncertain Following Second Freeze-Up 
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Mitch McConnell’s Future as Leader Uncertain Following Second Freeze-Up 

Plus: A prominent New Hampshire donor says he’s warming to Ron DeSantis.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell departs for the day on Capitol Hill on July 27, 2023. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

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Up to Speed

  • Failed 2022 Senate candidate Blake Masters of Arizona is gearing up for another run in 2024, the Wall Street Journal reports. Last cycle, Masters fell to incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly, a Democrat, by nearly five percentage points. If Masters captures the Republican nomination again, he could face two major candidates in the general elections: centrist incumbent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an independent former Democrat who has not formally declared she’s running for reelection, and Rep. Ruben Gallego, a progressive Democrat who is on track to win his party’s primary. Former GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake is also toying with running for the Senate.
  • Former Rep. Mike Rogers is poised to run for Senate in Michigan, the Detroit News reports. The Republican, a former FBI agent who was chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, left Congress in 2015 after seven terms. Rogers’ prospects in the GOP primary are uncertain. He has been critical of former President Donald Trump at times—and spent the last few years living in Florida and was previously a paid CNN national security contributor. Incumbent Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat, is retiring.
  • Perhaps it’s the lure of an open seat, but Mike Rogers isn’t the only Republican former congressman eyeing a Senate bid in Michigan. Peter Meijer has opened an exploratory committee, and in a statement first reported by the Detroit News and provided to The Dispatch says “winning in 2024 is the only way we can stop [President Joe] Biden’s ruinous economic policies and mass weaponization of government.” But like Rogers, Meijer has his own liabilities. He was ousted in a GOP primary in 2022, after one term, primarily because he voted to impeach Trump for his culpability in the ransacking of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.
  • Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp says he opposes efforts to remove Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis. “Up to this point, I have not seen any evidence that DA Willis’ actions, or lack thereof, warrant action by the prosecuting attorney oversight commission,” the Republican said Thursday during a news conference. Some Republicans in Georgia are pushing for Willis’ removal because she brought an indictment against Trump for his alleged attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election in the Peach State. Kemp also opposes calls by GOP state legislators for a special session of the legislature to remove Willis.

Second McConnell Freeze-Up Sparks Intra-GOP Debate About His Health, Leadership 

Senate Republicans are growing concerned about Mitch McConnell’s ability to continue serving as minority leader after the Kentucky Republican was unable to verbalize an answer to a question during a Wednesday news conference—the second such health episode he has suffered this summer.

There are discussions among some Senate Republicans, none of whom are in leadership, to convene a meeting about McConnell’s health and discuss next steps, although details are preliminary and it’s unclear when such a gathering would occur, one Senate GOP aide confirms to Dispatch Politics. Politico first reported tentative plans for a special meeting of the Republican conference once the Senate reconvenes in Washington next week following an annual summer recess. 

McConnell, 81, is the longest-serving Senate leader in U.S. history and has had a virtually unchallenged iron grip on his conference for most of his 16-plus-year tenure. That makes the willingness of some Senate Republicans and senior GOP aides to even broach a discussion of moving past McConnell remarkable. One lobbyist who requested anonymity to speak candidly told The Dispatch Thursday that in conversations with chiefs of staff for multiple senators in both parties, the general consensus was one of concern and confusion for how much longer McConnell can continue as leader. 

Many sources add that confusion surrounding McConnell’s health complicates the GOP’s electoral messaging surrounding 81-year-old President Joe Biden, whom Republicans often describe as being too old for the job, ahead of a crucial election year. Biden says he spoke with McConnell on the phone Thursday and has no concerns about his ability to lead the Senate GOP conference. “He was his old self on the telephone,” Biden told reporters on Thursday.

A spokesman for the minority leader did not respond to a request for comment Friday morning.

The latest incident occurred Wednesday in Kentucky, when McConnell did not respond to a reporter’s question about whether he plans to run for reelection in 2026 for a full 30 seconds. An aide had to repeat the question. Officially, McConnell’s staff chalked up his latest news conference freeze-up to lightheadedness related to the concussion he suffered earlier this year after he fell at a restaurant, later releasing a doctor’s note that says he is fit to serve.

“I have consulted with Leader McConnell and conferred with his neurology team,” the U.S. Capitol’s attending physician, Dr. Brian Monahan, wrote in the note. “After evaluating yesterday’s incident, I have informed Leader McConnell that he is medically clear to continue with his schedule as planned.” The letter did not say whether Monahan had examined McConnell personally.

McConnell’s leadership allies say the Senate GOP leader is in good health. “Thune and McConnell spoke yesterday afternoon,” Ryan Wrasse, a spokesman for Senate GOP Whip John Thune, told The Dispatch on Thursday. “The leader sounded like his usual self and was in good spirits.”

McConnell’s latest health scare comes as lawmakers prepare to return to Washington from their annual August recess—and some Senate Republicans worry he may have trouble leading them through thorny negotiations on government funding, disaster relief, and military aid to Ukraine set to commence this month. Some House Republicans are threatening to shut down the government if they do not secure certain spending cuts and policy changes.

In Kentucky, sources close to McConnell say the Senate GOP leader seems fully alert and like his normal self, making lots of local TV appearances and attending political events on a regular basis.

One person who sat next to him at an event in Kentucky later on Wednesday tells The Dispatch McConnell seemed “fine” Wednesday evening, and that the Senate GOP leader didn’t appear to be cognitively affected by his concussion. 

“He doesn’t slur his words. His thoughts are generally very clear,” this person says, adding that McConnell privately acknowledged during a dinner recently that it was a “difficult” concussion and he had to recover. “I’ve noticed over the years, he’s gotten a little more frail. But the only thing that is really noticeably different is his hearing. His hearing has gotten a lot worse.”

McConnell attended a Senate fundraiser for GOP Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana in Louisville, Kentucky, later Wednesday evening. Banks posted a photo of him and McConnell on social media Wednesday.

McConnell’s latest medical episode comes ten months after GOP Sen. Rick Scott’s failed leadership challenge back in November, which highlighted internal divisions over the trajectory of Senate GOP leadership after a disappointing midterm cycle. McConnell quashed that internal revolt in a secret ballot vote, 37-10.

“I expect he’ll continue to be the Republican leader through this term,” Scott told CBS News on Wednesday. “You know, we’ll have another election after the 2024 elections.”

DeSantis Close to Scoring Support of Prominent Sununu Donor

A prominent Republican donor in New Hampshire closely aligned with Gov. Chris Sununu is leaning toward endorsing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the race for the GOP presidential nomination, stoking speculation Sununu is planning to do the same.

Phil Taub, who had encouraged Sununu to mount a 2024 bid before the governor bowed out, has hosted DeSantis for a campaign event at his New Hampshire home and talked him up in interviews on local talk radio. In a telephone interview with The Dispatch, Taub says he could formally back DeSantis as early as next month, saying the Florida governor is appealing because he is the only military veteran running and is best positioned to overcome frontrunner Donald Trump. 

“If you check back in with me in a few weeks or a month, my answer will probably be that [DeSantis is] the guy,” says Taub, an attorney in Manchester who works in private equity. “I am currently talking to half the field in one form or another.”

Taub says he is still having conversations with other candidates and emphasizes his endorsement should not be viewed as a smoke signal previewing Sununu’s decision. But with the New Hampshire governor most likely to back the candidate who appears strongest versus Trump, DeSantis is a logical option. That Sununu is a traditional conservative partial to governors boosts the possibility of DeSantis securing his endorsement, despite differences that caused Sununu to be openly critical of his Florida colleague earlier this year.

“I think Gov. Sununu believes that if there clearly is a good alternative to Donald Trump, he’ll probably use his endorsement to help that candidate,” Taub explains. “If Gov. DeSantis shows that he’s the one, I think he will endorse him.” 

DeSantis, meanwhile, recently defended Sununu after he was attacked by Trump, calling New Hampshire “the best governed state in New England.”

Sununu is a popular figure in New Hampshire—he’s won four, two-year terms as the state’s chief executive—but his endorsement alone might not be enough to put DeSantis over the top. 

Trump is dominating New Hampshire polling with 44.3 percent support in the RealClearPolitics average, followed by DeSantis in a distant second with 13.3 percent and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie with 8 percent. Sununu has said he believes the key to defeating the former president in the Granite State is clearing the field, to provide one candidate an opportunity to coalesce the backing of voters supporting Trump’s various opponents. 

To lay the foundation for that hoped-for eventuality, Sununu is not only willing to endorse in the primary, but publicly nudge candidates out of the race to clear the field for his preferred contender. That said, one Republican strategist with Granite State ties cautioned that such a move could backfire, saying the contest would “become Trump versus Sununu if he does—and does anyone want that?”

Asked for comment, a spokesman for the governor referred us to an August 21 op-ed he published in The New York Times. “As governor of the first-in-the-nation primary state, I will do everything I can to help narrow the field,” Sununu wrote. “I plan to endorse and campaign for the best alternative to Mr. Trump. As of now, it’s anyone’s for the taking.” New Hampshire votes second on the GOP nominating calendar, about four weeks after the Iowa caucuses.

DeSantis has a strong roster of endorsers in New Hampshire, including some top Republicans in the state legislature. But picking up Taub would presumably be a welcome development given his Granite State connections, including to Sununu. That he is a well-heeled donor also helps. DeSantis’ ability to raise the necessary resources has been in question since a high cash burn rate forced his campaign to lay off staff and farm out control of campaign events to his super PAC.

But some Republican operatives in New Hampshire are keeping an eye on Taub because they believe his endorsement could signal something bigger. Citing Taub’s close relationship with Sununu, they say he would be unlikely to make a major move guaranteed to put him and the governor on opposing sides.

I don’t think Taub and Sununu are discussing this with one another, but I do think both may be gravitating towards DeSantis,” the GOP insider says. “For Taub, DeSantis is the only veteran in the race and Taub is deeply involved in fundraising for veterans. For Sununu, DeSantis is a governor who remains the best positioned non-Trump alternative.”

The DeSantis campaign declined to comment.

Notable and Quotable

“I’ve frequently been asked ‘What’s it been like to be the leader of your party in the Senate?’ I finally came up with the perfect answer: It’s a little bit like being a groundskeeper at a cemetery: Everybody’s under you but nobody is listening.”

—Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell speaking before an audience on August 30 

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.

Michael Warren is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was an on-air reporter at CNN and a senior writer at the Weekly Standard. When Mike is not reporting, writing, editing, and podcasting, he is probably spending time with his wife and three sons.