Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) faces a difficult task of mending the fractures within his conference that exploded into the open as lawmakers fought over who was to blame for the party’s failures in the midterm elections.
Much of the battle centered on McConnell, who on Wednesday beat back an effort by National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) Chairman Rick Scott (R-Fla.) to end his leadership reign.
Scott argued that McConnell’s lack of a clearly defined agenda hurt Republicans in the midterm elections and questioned whether the decision by a super PAC affiliated with McConnell, the Senate Leadership Fund, to pull out of the Arizona Senate race may have cost their party the Senate majority .
McConnell ended up easily winning the leadership race, but he did not emerge unscathed.
Thirty-seven Republican senators voted by secret ballot for McConnell after Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) nominated him to serve his ninth term as Senate Republican leader. But 11 did not support him, with 10 GOP senators voting for Scott and one voting “present.”
“We got to do something different,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who voted for Scott. “We’re not appealing to working-class independents, we don’t have their confidence.”
“This election, they don’t like President Biden but they looked at Republicans and said, ‘Well, we don’t know that you guys will really do anything,’” he said. “We have to win those voters, which to me means we have to do something different.”
“We need to have a serious discussion now about our convictions as a party, which we started today,” he added. “We need to have a more thorough one.”
McConnell projected unity by characterizing the 31/2-hour debate as a productive discussion about how to do better in the 2024 elections. He also tried to get his colleagues to focus on the Dec. 6 Senate runoff in Georgia, which could take them closer to the majority if they defeat Sen. Raphael Warnock (D).
“We just had a rather lengthy — as you could tell — discussion about the way forward for Senate Republicans,” he said at a press conference after the winning election. “We’ve collectively, I think, had a good discussion about what happened in the election and what happened in the next election.”
“And I think everybody in our conference agreed we want to give it our best shot to finish the job in Georgia and concentrate on that for the next month,” he said.
McConnell downplayed the 10 Republican votes he lost as a sign of a healthy discussion of differences among colleagues.
“I’m not in any way offended by having an opponent or having a few votes in opposition,” he said. “I’m pretty proud of 37 to 10.”
McConnell did not mention former President Trump by name, but made it clear that he thinks Trump’s divisive style of politics hurt Republican candidates, especially Mehmet Oz, who was trying to win the Pennsylvania Senate seat by appealing to moderates.
“Here’s the problem: We underperformed among voters who did not like President Biden’s performance, among independents and among moderate Republicans, who looked at us and concluded [there was] too much chaos, too much negativity, and we turned off a lot of these centrist voters,” he said.
He said this trend was “fatal” in Pennsylvania because Oz’s message of moderation “got muddled” at the end of the race, which was capped by a rally with Trump in Latrobe.
McConnell dismisses the notion that the contested leadership race is a sign that his days as the Senate leader are numbered. “I’m not going anywhere,” he said.
One McConnell ally mocked Scott’s leadership bid for getting crushed by a lopsided vote. The GOP senator said it reminded him of a video clip posted online of Bambi meeting Godzilla in which Bambi gets flattened.
Scott came under heavy criticism at Tuesday’s meeting over his handling of the NRSC. Mon. Susan Collins (R-Maine) questioned her spending decisions, and Sens. Thom Tillis (RN.C.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) called for an independent audit of the committee’s finances.
Scott responded Wednesday with a scathing statement that accused his predecessor at the NRSC, Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), of allowing “improper bonuses” to outgoing staff after Republicans lost the Senate majority.
“When I took over, I immediately became aware that hundreds of thousands of dollars in unauthorized and improper bonuses were paid to outgoing staff after the majority was lost in 2020,” he said, reflecting how nasty the party fighting had become.
Scott said after Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s marathon meetings that he wasn’t stung by colleagues’ criticisms.
“Run a big company, it’s been my life,” he said, referring to the criticism he had to weather when he ran Columbia/HCA, a major health care company.
Asked if he thought Republicans could put the nasty leadership behind them and heal the wounds it caused, Scott replied terily: “Yup, I think so.”
Republicans who criticized McConnell’s leadership style said he had spent too much time playing defense against Democrats and not enough time crafting an agenda telling voters how Republicans would govern if they had control of the Senate.
More junior senators complained that they did not have enough input into major bills and often had been forced to vote up or down on high-profile bills with little time to review or shape the legislation.
Mon. Kevin Cramer (RN.D.) said Scott’s leadership challenge put a spotlight on these complaints.
“I think Rick Scott accomplished a point,” he told reporters.
“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 backroom deals. They want to, at least, be in the backroom deal if they’re making them,” Cramer said.
Asked about the complaints about the lack of inclusiveness, McConnell said colleagues had plenty of opportunity to discuss issues and priorities by calling for special conferences.
“Any five of us can call a conference to discuss any particular issue. We are acquainted with our members with the tools they have if they have an idea they want to promote,” he said.
Hovering over the intraparty skirmishing is McConnell’s broken relationship with Trump, who last week endorsed Scott as someone who could knock McConnell out of his leadership job.
Mon. Lindsey Graham (RS.C.), one of Trump’s closest allies in the Senate, said he wanted to see a change in the Republican leadership and voted for Scott. “I voted for change. I voted for Rick. Nothing against Mitch, I just think we need change,” he said.
McConnell told reporters Wednesday that he had no desire to comment on Trump’s announcement that he would run again for president.
“The way I’m going to go into this presidential primary season is to stay out of it. I don’t have a dog in that fight. I think it’s going to be a highly contested nomination fight with other candidates entering,” he said.
Wednesday’s leadership drama was mostly confined to the race between McConnell and Scott.
The other members of the GOP leadership team, including Senate Republican Whip John Thune (SD), Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.), Republican Policy Committee Chairwoman Joni Ernst (Iowa) and incoming NRSC Chairman Steve Daines (Mont.), were elected without opposition.
Al Weaver contributed.
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