Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) announced a challenge to Mitch McConnell in a closed-door party lunch on Tuesday afternoon, the first such opposition that the Senate GOP leader is facing in 15 years at the helm.
The challenge emerged after Republicans’ disappointing midterm performance provoked a tremendous round of finger-pointing. Scott, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee and got nudged to mount opposition to McConnell by former President Donald Trump, was at odds with the GOP leader over strategy and tactics for months before Election Day.
McConnell says he already has the votes locked up to win a Wednesday leadership election, and Scott is not expected to garner enough support to come close to toppling the leader. But Scott is pressing forward anyway, as a band of conservatives pushes to delay leadership elections until all the Senate races are determined.
McKinley Lewis, a spokesman for Scott, confirmed his leadership bid.
The Senate GOP met Tuesday afternoon to hash out the midterm debacle that failed to net them a single Democratic-controlled seat, with a sizable minority of senators asking to hold off on the contests until the remaining Senate races are called. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) warned on Tuesday morning that if party leaders pressed ahead with a Wednesday leadership vote amid calls for delay, “it is extremely likely it will be a contested election, that you will see one or more senators run against Mitch McConnell.”
Most Senate Republicans are open to a discussion about the party’s agenda and what did not work in 2022, 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 National Republican Senatorial Committee on spending decisions and candidate quality.
But a leadership fight is not being welcomed by some GOP senators.
“I don’t think a challenge of our Sen. 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.”
Scott said in an interview before the lunch that “a lot of people have suggested I run.”
In addition to Scott, recently re-elected Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) is fuming about the party leadership: “If the excuse is they are uncontested, they will be contested. I have no doubt about that. If nobody else contests, I’ll contest,” he said.
Cruz charged that “our leadership repeatedly wants to give in to Democrat priorities. I think that is a failed leadership strategy. And so part of the reason we should delay the election is to have a real and meaningful discussion within the conference,”
The majority of Republican senators want to move forward with leadership elections, but a not-insignificant number want to delay them until the Alaska and Georgia races are decided. Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) said she would support McConnell even as she joins those in asking for a delay.
Others, like Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), say they want 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 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.
McConnell said this week that “of course” he has the votes to win a leadership election, which will make him the longest-serving party leader in Senate history during the next Congress. And even though he faces unrest in the caucus, no one is predicting he might lose, or that it even would be particularly close.
“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.”
The GOP conference chair, Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, said things are moving ahead on schedule. He’s not the only McConnell ally who pointed out that a delay won’t change the result.
“There’s nothing that’s going to change as a result of delaying. I mean, we’ve done this before — we did it two years ago. We had both Georgia seats two years ago. They weren’t decided until January. The elections always occur at the same time,” said Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.).