McConnell faces leadership challenge from Rick Scott as conservatives steam

“I have the votes. I will be elected. The only issue is whether it will be sooner or later,” McConnell said. “I don’t own this job. Anybody in the conference that’s serving can challenge me. And I welcome [it].”

Senate Republicans spent roughly three hours on Tuesday venting to each other about the party’s poor performance in the midterms, an unusually long meeting that exposed deep frustrations about the conference’s inability to capitalize on President Joe Biden’s middling popularity and rising inflation. Republicans failed to flip any Democratic seats and are consigned to the minority for two more years, prompting some GOP senators to loudly complain in the private lunch that their lack of a unified agenda cost the party.

“We very seldom get involved in any significant policy consideration. We play defense against Democrats,” griped Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who is planning a run for governor in 2024 and will support Scott.

Those gripes are coming to a head with Scott’s challenge, which follows his stewardship of the Senate GOP’s campaign arm in a cycle that could end with Republicans losing a seat. Scott, who former President Donald Trump nudged to mount the opposition bid, was at odds with McConnell over strategy and tactics for months before Election Day.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a McConnell ally, said that Scott will likely accrue votes “in the high single-digits” and said GOP leaders have the votes to move the leadership elections forward on Wednesday.

During Tuesday’s meeting, some senators questioned the financial acumen of the National Republican Senatorial Committee under Scott. Others complained about not having a more positive agenda.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) spoke so loudly he could be heard through the door of the private room, and attendees estimated Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) spoke for roughly half an hour.

“It was like Festivus from Seinfeld. The airing of grievances. But the reality is, Mitch McConnell has done quite an extraordinary job,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), citing tax reform, conservative judges and McConnell’s fundraising.

Scott introduced his own agenda earlier this year, which McConnell quickly criticized for including tax increases and sunsetting popular safety net programs. The Floridian did not join other party leaders at a press conference Tuesday after the conference lunch but wrote to his colleagues in a letter that the GOP has “to be far more bold and resolute than we have been in the past.”

“I understand that I won’t gain the support of every member of our Conference, but we all have a clear choice to make. If you simply want to stick with the status quo, don’t vote for me,” Scott said in the message to colleagues announcing his bid.

Scott is not expected to garner enough support to come close to toppling the leader, with senators and aides projecting he may win 10 or so votes of the senators and senators-elect. But he is pressing forward anyway, as a sizable minority of senators pushes to delay leadership elections until all the Senate races are determined.

Cornyn and other Republicans are worried a protracted debate over party leadership would undermine their electoral prospects in Georgia. Forty-nine GOP senators and senators-elect are allowed to vote on Wednesday, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), whose reelection campaign is headed to a ranked-choice runoff.

And not all GOP senators welcome a leadership fight.

“I don’t think a challenge of our Senator McConnell is a wise decision. It’s something that will stay with us for the next two years,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who predicted a “second-guessing game as people run for president.”

Most Senate Republicans want to continue a discussion about the party’s agenda and what did not work in this year’s midterm elections, when Trump-anointed candidates failed to win general elections and the McConnell-aligned super PAC, Senate Leadership Fund, did not see eye-to-eye with Scott’s NRSC on spending decisions and candidate quality.

McConnell has his own explanation for the party’s loss. He said independent voters perceived some Republican candidates as “spending too much time on negativity, attacks and chaos.” He singled out Arizona GOP candidate Blake Masters and New Hampshire GOP candidate Don Bolduc for getting “crushed by independent voters.”

But detractors say McConnell is also responsible as he wraps up his eighth term as GOP leader. Cruz charged that “our leadership repeatedly wants to give in to Democrat priorities. I think that is a failed leadership strategy.”

“We need a different government model. It’s got to be more collaborative. Whoever the leader is, you’ve got to be accountable to us. This is a group of equals. It’s got to be run as a group of people. This isn’t ‘Animal Farm,’” Johnson said in an interview. He will nominate Scott for leadership on Wednesday, and will not run for Republican Policy Committee chair against Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa).

And not all those looking to postpone want McConnell out. Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) said she would support the Kentuckian even as she joins those in asking for a delay.

Others, like Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), say they’re looking for new leadership: “I’m not gonna vote for Senator McConnell. I’ve made that abundantly clear.” His new Missouri GOP colleague, Sen.-elect Eric Schmitt, did not comment on the leadership races Tuesday after signaling he wouldn’t support McConnell as leader earlier this year.

In fact, the newly elected GOP senators became a wild card as soon as they arrived in town Tuesday for orientation. In addition to Schmitt, J.D. Vance of Ohio, Katie Britt of Alabama, Ted Budd of North Carolina and Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma are all joining the GOP conference.

Should McConnell win, it will make him the longest-serving party leader in Senate history during the next Congress. And even though he faces unrest in the conference, no one is predicting Scott could even come close to ousting him.

“It’d probably be smart to make sure we had everybody here. And we don’t know whether Herschel Walker is gonna be here or not,” said Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), who supports McConnell. “Is it going to make any difference whether Sen. McConnell will be the leader or not the leader? Probably not.”