Mitch McConnell of Kentucky on November 16 overwhelmingly won re-election as his party’s Senate leader, holding off Senator Rick Scott of Florida in the first challenge Senator McConnell has faced since assuming the post in 2007. Despite a disappointing election performance that left them demoralized and still mired in the minority, Senate Republicans stuck with their longtime leader, opting for an experienced hand rather than a change at the top that could add to the post-election turmoil engulfing their party. “I think the most important thing we can do is get these differences behind us,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas and a leading McConnell ally.
The leadership bid by Senator Rick Scott was always a long shot, particularly since he had served as the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the party campaign arm that was tasked with winning back the Senate majority, and came up short. Many of his colleagues saw him as more responsible for the election defeat than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But critics of Senator McConnell, who was re-elected leader on a vote of 37 to 10, with one abstention, said they saw it as a worthwhile demonstration of unrest in the ranks. “We had a double-digit vote against the current leader, and that’s never happened in the time I’ve been here,” said Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, who opposed McConnell and attempted to delay the leadership selection until after a December 6 Georgia runoff election, a bid that was soundly rejected by his colleagues.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said he was not offended by the challenge and some of his supporters relished the showdown as a chance for the Kentucky Republican to give a concrete demonstration of his strong standing within his conference. “We had a good opportunity to discuss the differences, people had an opportunity to listen to both candidates, and I’m pretty proud of 37 to 10,” Senator McConnell said after the vote. The vote at the end of a meeting behind closed doors that stretched for more than three hours, as Republican senators sat at desks in the Old Senate Chamber, a semicircular room adorned with marble columns and an ornate central table hung with crimson fabric, to hash out their differences. The room is a traditional spot for leadership elections.
Republicans in both the House and Senate are reeling from their poor performance in midterm elections in which they expected to post significant gains based on a sour public mood, inflation, and historical trends. But Senate Democrats held their majority and could still expand it, while Republicans managed to squeak into the majority in the House. Party leaders in both chambers are facing an internal backlash, exposing divides that could persist as they confront Democrats over the next two years.
Senator Rick Scott and his allies said that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell represented the status quo and that a new approach was necessary if Republicans were to regroup and triumph in 2024. They criticized Senator McConnell for cooperating too much with Democrats, allowing them to notch legislative victories this year that boosted their campaigns. “Clearly, the Republican Party’s got to do something different if we ever want to be a majority party,” said Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO). “I put it to them, you know, what would they see to do differently, and what do they think the approach ought to be. But most Senate Republicans regarded Senator McConnell as a much better bet for a rebound than Senator Scott. “I have a lot of admiration for his vision and look forward to carrying forward with that,” said Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, who was elected as the fifth-ranking Republican, becoming one of two women in the party leadership, alongside Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, who won the fourth-ranking spot.
The leadership challenge was conducted by secret ballot, but those who indicated they voted against Senator Mitch McConnell included Senators Rick Scott, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Mike Braun, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “I think Rick Scott accomplished his point,” said Senator Kevin Cramer (R-ND). “And that is that several members are frustrated and have been for some time that they want to see a more inclusive process. They don’t want to see so many back-room deals.” Senator McConnell acknowledged the sentiment and said senators were reminded in their private meeting that any five Republican senators could call a party meeting to hash out an issue “We acquainted our members with the tools they have if they have an idea they want to promote,” McConnell said. “I think that will be used more often. I certainly welcome it.” Senator Scott, for his part, hinted that he would not hesitate to continue voicing dissent even in the wake of his loss. “I’m going to continue to fight for what I believe,” Scott said.
Even though Republicans fell short of expectations on November 8, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his leadership team emphasized that the Senate, and the nation as a whole, remains narrowly divided and that the Republicans in the Senate could still have significant influence with a Republican House. “It is still a 50-50 country,” said Senator McConnell. “They’ve given us a 50-50 government again. I think what the public is going to be looking at is whether or not this narrowly divided Congress can accomplish anything that does them any good in terms of their lives.” McConnell said he urged the Biden administration and Senate Democrats to try to “find some things between the 40-yard lines that we can agree on, and do them.”
When the next Congress convenes in January, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will set the record for serving the longest in a Senate leadership role, surpassing Mike Mansfield, Democrat of Montana, who spent 16 years as majority leader in the 1960s and 1970s. The impending record has prompted speculation that Senator McConnell could step aside after he hits that milestone, though he dismissed that idea. “I’m not going anywhere,” he told reporters