Sen. Mitch McConnell was easily reelected as GOP leader in the upper chamber on Wednesday, despite a challenge — his first in 15 years — and despite party hints at the GOP’s disappointing performance in last week’s interim period.
McConnell had faced opposition from Florida Senator Rick Scott, who was launching a historic campaign to lead the Republican conference.
The leadership vote, conducted by secret ballot behind closed doors in the ornate old Senate Chamber, was 37-10 with one member in attendance, according to Senator Kevin Cramer, RN.D.
The conference met for three and a half hours.
An attempt led by R-Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to postpone Wednesday’s leadership vote also fell through as supporters received 16 votes for every two GOP aides. He and his supporters pushed the delay because they wanted the party to focus directly on the December 6 Georgia runoff, which could provide the conference with an additional voting member if Republican nominee Herschel Walker wins over Democratic incumbent Sen .Raphael Warnock is successful.
“I just don’t understand why we would say to Herschel Walker please please please please please win the Senate seat, but we’re not interested in what you have to say, we don’t want you to do it have a vote in our election,” said Senator Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who supported the motion to postpone the vote. “I just think that’s wrong.”
However, Senate GOP aides confirmed that Walker could have voted Wednesday, but he was busy campaigning again in his state.
In a press conference after the vote, McConnell said they had a “good discussion about what happened in the election and what’s going to happen in the next election.”
“I think everyone in our conference agrees that we want to do our best to finish the work in Georgia and focus on that over the next month,” McConnell said.
The stubborn Kentuckian, who is currently on course to break former Senator Mike Mansfield’s record as the longest-serving leader in history, had previously seen no challenges in his role. Scott’s recent move, spearheaded by former President Donald Trump, caught many by surprise.
ABC News’ Trish Turner pressed McConnell on Wednesday about whether the challenge makes it more or less likely that he would consider retiring once he beat Mansfield’s record in 2023.
“I’m not going anywhere,” McConnell replied.
Scott, a recent McConnell critic – who clashed with the leader over Republicans failing to come up with a plan ahead of the midterms for how they would govern if they won the majority – admonished his conference both in a private speech Tuesday afternoon and also in a letter to her to make a change from the “status quo”.
“Like all of you, I am deeply disappointed by the results of the recent elections. Despite what the armchair quarterbacks will tell you on TV, there isn’t a single person accountable for our party’s performance across the country,” Scott said of the GOP campaign arm in this cycle that has seen the party far below expectations cut off, wrote when explaining why he was the better choice over McConnell.
He added: “Unfortunately, we have continued to elect a leadership that refuses to do so and elicits attacks on anyone who does. This is clearly not working and it is time for bold changes. The voters are demanding it.”
McConnell didn’t mince words when speaking to reporters on Tuesday, saying the issue is when — not if — he’ll be elected chairman. When asked to respond to Scott’s challenge, McConnell said, “I don’t own this job.”
Scott was replaced by Montana Sen. Steve Daines in the role of NRSC chair on Wednesday.
But much of the Senate Republican leadership team will remain unchanged after Wednesday’s vote. Republican Minority Whip John Thune of South Dakota secured an additional two years in his position, and Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso of Wyoming will also remain in office.
Republicans speak of McConnell, Scott
The GOP conference had met for more than three hours Tuesday for a session that one senator called “a lively discussion” and another said it was “a kind of rhetorical exchange of blows.”
“It was a really, really good discussion. People want to be a team and win, but we know we’re 50 individuals. The new people (senators) probably said, ‘Woah! What’s happening? ‘ But it was a healthy discussion,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, RW.Va., a McConnell supporter who was elected vice chair of the conference by her peers on Wednesday.
About 15 to 20 senators stood up to speak at the marathon meeting. Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., who spoke second, announced that he would support Scott.
“If you measure how we did in the last election, especially the presidential election and the state senate races, we have to do better,” said Braun, who joined the Senate with Scott in 2018. “It’s very clear to me, I’ve run a business for 37 years, that if you don’t have a master plan, a mission statement, which I believe we don’t have as a Republican party, it’s not going to work. And I think independents elect the swing state senators and the president, and it showed here [midterm] Choose.”
“I think if you continue to have the same results and presidential election, have we won a popular vote since 2004? That should make you think hard about what you need to do differently,” Braun continued.
Republican senators said McConnell appeared surprised by Scott’s challenge but eventually offered a reply, saying that being a leader is no easy matter.
“He countered once or twice … just because of the difficulty of the job, which is true. It’s not like either side has a mandate,” Braun told reporters.
According to Sen. Hawley, who said he plans to endorse Scott, McConnell also took hits at Scott’s performance in his current role.
“Senator Scott disagrees with the approach that Mitch has taken over the last several years and he has made that clear and Senator McConnell has criticized Senator Scott’s management at the NRSC and I think we will hear more about that tomorrow,” said Hawley.
As head of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, Scott controlled the purses of the GOP’s campaign arm. Under his leadership, the NRSC ended the campaign season’s home stretch with relatively little cash, which drew Scott to criticism, including from McConnell, whose Super PAC had to fill the gap.
“If you want to assess blame for election losses, I don’t see how you can trade leader for gentleman at the NRSC,” Sen. Cramer told the Huffington Post.
Several GOP senators have pointed to the sheer fundraising ability of McConnell and his aligned super PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, as a key reason to keep him at the helm this cycle.
“I definitely support the current management team. Mitch raised an exceptionally large amount of money and used it to support the Republican election,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah.
McConnell’s super PAC raised “a total of $205 million pooled across nine Senate races,” according to AdImpact.
Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, a member of McConnell’s leadership and supporter, had said she had no problem with Scott wanting to oust McConnell, but that Scott had failed to provide a valid argument as to why he should be selected.
“I think elections are fine, and I think if people want to challenge or throw in their name, I think that’s fine,” Ernst said. “But what they need to do is come up with a real plan of what they want to see for the future of our conference, and I didn’t necessarily hear that from Rick Scott. He had a lot of things he wanted to air about his grievances, but we haven’t heard a definitive plan.”
But Scott actually offered a plan for the party before midterms. In February he presented his “12-point plan to save America”. It didn’t get him friends on either side of the aisle.
Both congressional Democrats and the White House criticized Scott’s proposal and quickly made it a topic of conversation. McConnell scorched Scott for suggesting Republicans could raise income taxes.
“Let me tell you what wouldn’t be part of our agenda,” McConnell said in March, shortly after Scott announced his plan. “We’re not going to have a bill on our agenda that will tax half the American people and shut down Social Security and Medicare within five years.”
The public disagreement was the earliest sign that McConnell and Scott’s relationship was beginning to crumble. Trump, who has publicly expressed his contempt for McConnell, has even nudged Scott into challenging McConnell for his seat, adding salt to the wound.
But while several Trump-aligned senators were expected to back Scott’s bid during Wednesday’s closed vote, it was already clear that most Senate Republicans were willing to keep McConnell.
When asked Tuesday if he thought Scott had a chance, Sen. Thom Tillis, RN.C., bluntly replied, “Not at all. Not at all.”