Mitch McConnell faces his first mutiny.
Senate Republicans’ weekly Tuesday luncheon typically lasts about an hour and a half, with members in and out as they please. A week after the 2022 mid-sessions, it lasted three and a half hours. There were no hobbies to be had.
Republicans, of course, failed to retake the Senate this election cycle, and in their long-running and “living” discussion — to use one of the senators’ own euphemisms — about why, Florida Sen. Rick Scott made an announcement: He would challenge Mitch McConnell for Republican leader.
It’s the first challenge McConnell has faced in his 16 years at the top of the Republican conference. And if McConnell is to be believed, he doesn’t stand a chance.
“I think the outcome is pretty clear,” McConnell said at a post-lunch press conference that was notably absent from a member of management. (Scott is chairman of the Republican National Senate Committee.) “I have the votes, I will be elected, the only question is whether we will make it sooner or later.”
It’s all part of a post-election scramble that has Republicans across Congress pointing fingers at each other. In the House, where Republicans are poised to hold a narrow majority, there is much gnashing of teeth over who will lead and how. But in the Senate, it is more surprising to see such a scene of mutiny.
No one had really predicted that Tuesday’s protest-fueled lunch would stretch until 4 p.m. But, as McConnell is not. 2, South Dakota Sen. John Thune predicted on Monday that it would feature a “grievance broadcast” from senators like Scott, Ted Cruz, and Josh Hawkley, who have leaned on McConnell persistently in recent days. (Coincidentally, they’re all known to have presidential ambitions. And say, former “Washington establishment” Mitch makes a pretty good foil in a Republican presidential primary.)
“‘Feisty’ is a good word,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn said in his expected tone on Tuesday morning.
Outside the room where Senate Republicans were meeting, dozens of reporters crowded the elevator bank hallway, awaiting news of the disarray inside. The senators who came out were a little ashen and particularly tight-lipped about what was going on. Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley reached out to stop reporters from hounding him for gossip during a break. Grassley, 89, has just won another six-year term. One wonders if he was jealous of incumbent senators, like Ohio’s Rob Portman, who got away early.
You can’t often hear much of what’s going on in private Senate Republican meetings. But at one point, you could definitely hear Cruz’s raised voice.
Since the half-terms, Cruz has been “so pissed off that I can’t even see straight”, as he said on a Monday podcast. He blamed McConnell for not putting money into Blake Masters’ Arizona bid and said that if there was a Republican who could win, who wouldn’t support Mitch, the truth is he’d rather that the Democrat wins. (That’s one man theory. McConnell’s super PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, would have said that Masters had “the worst focus group results of any candidate” he had ever seen, so instead he diverted his money to candidates who were not the worst they’ve ever seen as… Dr. Oz. They really didn’t have much to work with.)
Cruz was a bit more diplomatic after Tuesday’s lunch conference.
“We just finished a three-and-a-half-hour lunch where we had the most vigorous discussion on the subject of leadership that we’ve had in my 10 years in the Senate,” Cruz told reporters.
That, I can believe. The question of McConnell’s leadership, at least inside the Capitol, has never been asked. Of course, there are always gripes about errant tactical decisions here and there: whether to obstruct this bill, whether to vote on that one, and so on. But McConnell has been the unopposed Republican leader for so long precisely because Senate Republicans trust his strategic acumen. Now there is at least one bloc ready to say he is no longer the right person to lead them to another election.
Rick Scott, however, is a curious choice for a replacement. If the problem is that the Senate leadership missed the election… well, again, who is the leading member heading the Senate Republicans’ campaign committee? There was a reason, after all, that Scott originally past on the idea of a hostile takeover after last week’s poor results.
“I really like Rick. I think he’s a great senator,” North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer told reporters. “But if you’re going to assess blame for election losses, I don’t know how. you trade the chief for the president of the NRSC. It’s just kind of a base for me.
Scott and McConnell had a simmering feud all year. In February, Scott released a controversial Republican platform against McConnell’s wishes that would have raised taxes on the poorest Americans and put Medicare and Social Security in place. renewal after five years. Scott, meanwhile, accused McConnell of privately bashing Republican Senate candidates and diverting NRSC donors to his PAC. Their respective henchmen were publicly plead this dispute since the election, even as Senate Republicans are still trying to win a seat in Georgia. (Wyoming Sen. Cynthia Lummis, at least, was doing her best Tuesday to keep things focused by answering reporters’ questions about Republican infighting with the mantra: “Georgia, Georgia, Georgia.”)
Scott and McConnell settled their differences in person over lunch. But Scott throws his challenge on more than the races that McConnell has or hasn’t put money behind this year. This is McConnell’s own way of, well, governing. In a lengthy letter announcing his candidacy, Scott offered a long list of complaints he’s heard from fellow Republicans since entering the Senate in 2019: how Senate Republican leadership should empower more members to give their opinion, how he’s not prioritizing spending cuts, how he’s not coordinating better with House Republicans, how he’s “constantly caving in to Democrats and has no backbone” or cutting the agreements with Chuck Schumer, how he opposed Democrats this cycle instead of advancing a more detailed agenda, and so on.
“And then there are some who are happy with the way things are going,” Scott concluded.
Indiana Sen. Mike Braun said he would support Scott, barring the entry of another candidate for office: “I think when you keep getting the same results – in presidential elections , we’ve won a popular vote since 2004 or something, it should make you think hard about what you’re doing differently.(Republicans have won the presidential popular vote exactly zero times since 2004.)
McConnell’s supporters at the conference, of which there are many more, are completely unmoved by Scott and others who are advocating for a leadership change. McConnell helped them a lot.
South Dakota Senator Mike Rounds noted that because of McConnell’s leadership, “we have a Supreme Court that is conservative in nature” and pushed through tax reform. “And I think the leaders have done in this particular case” – the 2022 election – “what they could do with the resources at their disposal.
Utah Senator Mitt Romney pointed out that McConnell had literally paid for the re-election of one of his mutinous members, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson. Johnson, whose oxen with McConnell date back to the 2016 election, would have talked for 30 minutes into lunch.
“Mitch has raised an extraordinarily large amount of money,” Romney said. And when a “top challenger to his leadership was in a race, he provided $30 million to Wisconsin.”
In some ways, Romney was saying the quiet part out loud, again. Because what earned McConnell the most criticism from fellow Republicans, including Scott, was his choice in August to say that “candidate quality” issues could be a factor in Republicans’ ability to retake the Senate.
McConnell, who never admitted fault for anything, never admitted fault for it. And, as he looks forward to beating Scott in his first internal challenge since the Bush administration, McConnell doubled down on that sentiment.
“The lesson is pretty clear,” McConnell told reporters, of his takeaways from the losses, after explaining how independent voters were particularly deterred by GOP Senate candidates in Arizona and New Hampshire. “Senate races are different. The quality of candidates, you will recall that I said in August, is important.
If the leadership election is delayed until after Georgia’s runoff, Scott could earn an honor worthy of his tenure as NRSC chairman: In a game against Mitch, Scott would be the last Republican Senate candidate to lose big in 2022. election.