The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

McConnell holds back challenge in precarious moment for his leadership

The Senate Republican leader faces some emboldened critics within his caucus as some of his closest allies retire

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) walks out of a leadership meeting at the Capitol on Nov. 16. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was reelected Senate minority leader on Wednesday, overcoming the first-ever challenge to his leadership following a disappointing midterms performance for Republicans.

While McConnell’s fate as leader was never really in doubt, the challenge from Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.) ended a remarkable week of public infighting among Republicans that highlighted a delicate moment in McConnell’s tenure. He still has overwhelming support in his conference, but is losing some key allies to retirement as new members — at least one backed aggressively by former president Donald Trump — arrive.

McConnell, who was reelected to the job in a 37-10 vote, has spent more than a decade keeping his conference largely in lockstep, but it’s not clear yet how the changing makeup of the chamber will affect his ability to lead.

“I don’t own this job,” McConnell said after winning the secret-ballot election following a nearly three-and-a-half-hour discussion during which some senators raised objections to his leadership style. “I’m not in any way offended by having an opponent or having a few votes in the opposition.

“And I’m pretty proud of 37 to 10,” he added.

McConnell has faced and survived tumult within his caucus in the past. He clashed with Jim DeMint, a former senator from South Carolina associated with the tea party movement, whose political allies later funded an unsuccessful primary challenge against McConnell in Kentucky. And on Wednesday, McConnell said he’s faced bleaker political outcomes than the 2022 midterms election before.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he’s “grateful” he won reelection as Republican leader on Nov. 16. (Video: The Washington Post)

Republican infighting roils Congress as midterms fallout continues

“I was here in ’08 — talk about getting clobbered,” he said. “There were 40 of us. Forty. It took us six years to crawl out of the hole. I’m disappointed in the outcome this year, but 50 is a hell of a lot better than 40.”

Still, many Republicans are eager to have more say in McConnell’s decision-making, which could mean headaches for the leader as he steers the minority during a presidential election cycle.

“I think what you’ll see is more activism on the part of the entire conference,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). Several members expressed their frustration about being cut out of “backroom deals” on legislation and wanted to see a more inclusive process within the conference, he added.

“Mitch took it to heart,” Cramer said of the criticism.

The Scott-McConnell feud

Allies of Scott’s and McConnell’s have been trading insults since Senate Republicans failed to gain a single seat in the midterms. McConnell warned last summer that Senate Republicans had a “candidate quality” problem, after Trump backed some first-time candidates in key battlegrounds who struggled in their races. Scott, the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, criticized McConnell for not releasing a Republican agenda ahead of the midterms, and Trump has also sought to blame the longtime leader.

Others have raised questions about Scott’s handling of the NRSC, and have called for an audit or post-mortem of how he handled funds this cycle.

Those tensions led to the first challenge against a Senate leader of either party since 1996. But McConnell’s eventual victory was never in doubt, even if a few of his members are being more vocal in their criticism of him compared to the past.

“He’s incredibly thick-skinned and resilient, but he’s also ferociously competitive,” said Brian McGuire, a former McConnell chief of staff, who predicted McConnell would be “energized” by the skirmish. He pointed out that Republicans had reelected McConnell as leader again and again even as the party changed tremendously over the past 15 years.

At a news conference after the vote, McConnell said he informed members of “tools” they could use to force discussions among the caucus, and pointed out that the group gets together three times a week, when any member can raise concerns.

But the leader made clear he was not considering changing his way of doing things.

“There’s nothing to negotiate,” he said.

McConnell also is losing some longtime allies next year due to retirements. Republican Sens. Rob Portman (Ohio), Roy Blunt (Mo.), Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.), Richard Burr (N.C.) and Richard C. Shelby (Ala.) are all retiring, and in some cases are being replaced by Republicans who have raised questions about McConnell’s leadership.

Eric Schmitt, who is replacing Blunt, distanced himself from McConnell over the summer, saying he did not endorse him for leadership.

The retiring senators were not just loyal soldiers but many also could be relied upon to take tough votes necessary to keep the government running. Raising the debt ceiling, for example, is necessary to avoid defaulting on the federal government’s obligations, but can be weaponized in a Republican primary.

Scott, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), all conservative firebrands, have been the most vocal in their criticism of the leader. But some more surprising voices, including Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) have also criticized McConnell or earlier called for a delay to the leadership election, which suggests McConnell faces a broader note of defiance.

“We’ve got to do something different,” Hawley said after Wednesday’s vote.

Scott said he would keep fighting after his loss and argued Republicans still needed to put forward a clear policy agenda. He announced his challenge to McConnell on Tuesday during an hours-long airing of grievances among party members frustrated over their failure to win back the chamber.

“My resolve to stand up for what Republicans across this nation stand for has never been stronger than it is today,” Scott said in a statement, and vowed to keep fighting to reform Social Security and Medicare and other priorities. Democrats used a previous agenda Scott put out that included reauthorization votes for those programs and tax hikes on low-income people to attack Republican candidates in the midterms.

McConnell’s victory came just a day after Trump announced his reelection bid. The leader appeared to criticize the former president without naming him, saying moderate voters were turned off from the party because they associated it with “chaos” and “negativity.” He said he wanted to accomplish some unspecified but bipartisan goals in the next Congress if President Biden was willing to work with Republicans.

‘A windy place to be’

McConnell has been the Republican leader in the Senate for nearly 16 years, and will become the longest-serving leader in the Senate for either party in the next Congress.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), an ally of McConnell’s, said criticism comes with the territory. “A lot of that has to do with being a leader. Someone has to make a decision and you’re not going to have all 50 senators agree on any given decision.”

Cornyn also noted that adopting one detailed agenda, as Scott has advocated for, would be difficult for the conference, given senators emphasize different issues based on their states.

Trent Lott, a former Senator and majority leader who later served as minority whip under McConnell, said dealing with criticism from fellow Republicans was just part of the job.

“Leadership in the House and the Senate in Washington is a windy place to be,” Lott said. “Just look at the record of what’s happened to former speakers and former majority leaders. It’s pretty hard to ride that bucking bronco longer than about six or seven years.”

Paul Kane, Leigh Ann Caldwell and Theodoric Meyer contributed to this report.