Senator Mitch McConnell is confident he will have the votes to remain GOP leader as the party points the finger at the GOP’s disappointing performance in the meantime.
But for the first time in his 15 years leading the conference, McConnell faces opposition as Florida Senator Rick Scott takes on a historic challenge for the post atop the Republican conference.
McConnell, the dour Kentuckian currently on track to break a Senate record for longest-serving leader in history in 2023, has faced no such challenge before. And while McConnell is expected to be re-elected for another term, Scott’s move, recently pushed by former President Donald Trump, surprised many.
Scott, a McConnell critic of late — who has clashed with the leader because Republicans failed to propose a midterm plan for how they would govern if they won the majority — his conference urged both in a speech behind closed doors Tuesday afternoon and in a letter to them to change something of “the status quo”.
Scott, who led the GOP campaign in this cycle in which the party performed well below expectations, explained why he was the better choice over McConnell.
“Like all of you, I am deeply disappointed by the results of the recent election. Despite what the quarterbacks on TV will tell you, no one in the entire country is responsible for our party’s performance,” Scott wrote.
He added: “Unfortunately, we have continued to elect leaders who refuse to do that and launch attacks against anyone who does. That clearly isn’t working and it’s time for bold change. The voters are demanding it.”
And while enough Republican senators could vote to postpone the GOP conference leadership election on Wednesday morning, McConnell didn’t mince words when he spoke to reporters after the rally, saying it was a matter of when — not if — he would be elected leader.
“I think the outcome is pretty clear, I want to repeat it again, I’ve got the votes and I’m going to be elected,” McConnell said at a news conference at Tuesday’s controversial conference meeting. “The question is whether we do it sooner or later.”
Asked to comment on Scott’s challenge, McConnell said, “I don’t own this job. Everyone at the conference certainly has a right to challenge me. I welcome the contest.”
The GOP conference met behind closed doors for more than three hours on Tuesday for what one senator called “a spirited discussion” and another said it was “sort of a rhetorical slugfest.”
“It was a really, really good discussion. People have a desire to be a team and win, but we realize we’re 50 individuals. The new people (senators) were probably like, ‘Woah! What’s going on?” But it was a healthy discussion,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, RW.Va., a McConnell supporter who will be elected congressional secretary by her colleagues on Wednesday.
About 15 to 20 senators were speaking at the marathon conference meeting. Senator Mike Braun, R-Ind., speaking second, announced that he would support Scott.
“If you measure how we’ve done in recent elections, especially the presidential election, swing state senate races, we need to do better,” said Braun, who joined the state senate in 2018 with Scott. “It’s very clear to me, I’ve run a company for 37 years, that if you don’t have a master plan, you don’t have a mission statement, which I don’t think we have as a Republican party, it’s not going to work. And I think independents are the swing state senators and elect the president and it showed right here in this one [midterm] elections.”
“I think if you keep having the same results and presidential election, we’ve won one popular vote since, what, 2004? It should make you think deeply about what you need to do differently,” Braun continued. .
Republican senators said McConnell seemed surprised by Scott’s move, but eventually offered an answer by saying being leader isn’t easy.
“He fumbled a time or two … in the difficulty of the job, which is true. It’s not like a party has a mandate,” Braun told reporters.
According to Senator Josh Hawley, who said he intends to support Scott, McConnell also took criticism for Scott’s performance in his current role.
“Senator Scott disagrees with the approach Mitch has taken over the years, and he has made that clear, and Senator McConnell criticized Senator Scott’s management at the NRSC and I assume we’ll hear more about that tomorrow” Hawley said.
As head of the National Republican Senate Campaign Committee, Scott controls the purse strings of the GOP’s campaign arm. Under his leadership, the NRSC finished the home portion of the campaign season with relatively little cash, leading Scott to face serious criticism, including from McConnell whose Super PAC had to pick up the slack. “If you’re going to assess blame for election losses, I don’t know how you trade leader for gentleman at the NRSC,” Senator Kevin Cramer, RN.D., told the Huffington Post.
Multiple GOP senators pointed to the sheer fundraising prowess of McConnell and his aligned Super PAC, Senate Leader Fund, this cycle as a major reason to keep him at the helm.
“I definitely support the current leadership team. Mitch raised an extraordinary amount of money and used it to help elect Republicans,” said R-Utah Senator Mitt Romney.
McConnell’s super PAC raised “a total of $205 million across nine Senate races,” according to AdImpact.
Senator Joni Ernst, currently a member of the leadership and McConnell supporter, said she had no problem with Scott’s challenge, but she said the Florida Republican failed to make a substantive argument as to why he should be chosen.
“I think elections are okay, and I think if people want to take on challenges or throw their name in there, I think that’s fine,” said Ernst, R-Iowa. “But what they need to do is present a real plan of what they want to see for the future of our conference, and I haven’t necessarily heard that from Rick Scott. He had a lot of things that he wanted to air his grievances about, but we haven’t heard a conclusive plan yet.”
But Scott actually offered a plan for the party ahead of the midterm elections. In February, he presented his “12 point plan to save America”. It didn’t make him friends on either side of the aisle.
Both Congressional Democrats and the White House denounced Scott’s proposal and quickly turned it into a talking point. McConnell scorched Scott for suggesting Republicans could raise income taxes.
“Let me tell you what’s not part of our agenda,” McConnell said in March, shortly after Scott announced his plan. “We will not have a bill on our agenda that would tax half the American people and make Social Security and Medicare disappear in five years.”
The public disagreement was the first sign that McConnell and Scott’s relationship was beginning to break down. Trump, who has made public his contempt for McConnell, even nudged Scott to challenge McConnell for his seat, adding salt to the wound.
But while several Trump-affiliated senators are expected to support Scott’s bid during the closed-door vote, it’s clear that most Senate Republicans are willing to keep McConnell at the top of the party.
Asked on Tuesday if he thought Scott had a chance, Senator Thom Tillis, RN.C. not mincing words: “Not at all. Not at all.”