‘Quite extraordinary’: Taking control in November would unleash a GOP leadership maelstrom

‘Perhaps the continuing division of Trumpism ... may signal more cracks than cohesion,’ professor says of GOP

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., speaks Sept. 13 as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., right, and Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., listen. Scott and McConnell have butted heads of late. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., speaks Sept. 13 as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., right, and Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., listen. Scott and McConnell have butted heads of late. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 23, 2022 at 6:00am

A grimace. A wave of the hand. A pause and a knowing smirk.

Senior Republican senators and political analysts know there is a storm brewing — and at its epicenter is the same force as always the last six years: Former President Donald Trump.

The Republican Party has long touted its “big tent.” But is there enough room for Trump and up-and-coming conservatives like Sen. Rick Scott of Florida and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — and 2024 presidential hopefuls like Sunshine State Gov. Ron DeSantis?

Much has been made in recent weeks about what many in Washington are calling a “feud” between Scott, a former Florida governor who heads the the once cash-heavy National Republican Senatorial Committee, and McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who still has a tight grip over his caucus.

They have traded jabs in the media and op-ed pages about the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s strategy and fundraising woes heading into a midterm election that has transformed from a sure thing for the GOP into a photo finish in the race to control the chamber.

In a brief interview with CQ Roll Call last week, Scott downplayed the tensions — but he did not deny their existence. Nor did he say equivocally that he and McConnell are on the same page.

“I did fundraisers for him back in 1993,” Scott said. “And I’ve worked with him since I’ve been up here.”

A full-throated declaration of a strong working relationship that was not. A ringing endorsement of a Majority Leader McConnell, should Republicans take the Senate in November’s midterms, that also was not. By the way, 1993 was a long time ago — and an eternity in politics.

Asked if he and McConnell have talked about the party’s downward fundraising trend over the last few months or possible strategy alterations as things get serious on the campaign trail, Scott gave no indication the two have spoken. “Well, what they’re doing, what he’s doing with his Super PAC is totally different than what we do,” he said.

The Scott-led NRSC had only $23 million on hand at the end of July, compared with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's $54 million. McConnell, in typical fashion, is trying to take matters into his own hands, via a super PAC affiliated with the minority leader. The Senate Leadership Fund is spending money Scott’s outfit doesn’t have to pour into races, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

This columnist also asked the NRSC chief if he and McConnell are on the same page in terms of strategy heading down the midterms homestretch. He didn’t exactly say yes.

“Well, you know, I don’t coordinate with the super PAC,” he replied, the frostiness practically chilling the Dirksen Senate Office building hallway. It is still technically illegal for super PACs to coordinate with candidates or political parties, but still …

G. William Hoagland, a former aide to then-Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and now with the Bipartisan Policy Center, offered some advice for Scott: “I would really try to mend my relationship, somehow, with the minority leader — but I believe it may be too late.”

‘Division of Trumpism’

GOP Land is one of many divisions. But that does not mean Republicans won’t be in the Senate majority come January.

Though the minority leader rarely addresses it, he and the party’s most dominant figure, Trump, also have beef. The former president has no problem going there, pitting Scott against McConnell.

Here was Trump on Sept. 15 on his social media platform: “Finally, some Republicans with great Courage! Rick Scott, Ted Cruz, and Mike Lee are working hard to stop Chuck Schumer and his favorite Senator Mitch McConnell from ramming through a disastrous Continuing Resolution that would do nothing to Stop Inflation, Grow our Economy, or Restore the American Dream--it would only put Big Government First and give Manchin his terrible deal….”

The former president aligned himself with conservative House and Senate Republicans who want to pass a stopgap spending measure spanning into next year. A new Congress will be seated in January, when the GOP could possess more negotiating power.

McConnell appears to be in the camp of most Senate Republicans, who want to next week pass a continuing resolution into mid-December, making possible a decks-clearing fiscal 2023 omnibus appropriations measure before the holidays.

What’s more, McConnell and Scott could be on a fiscal collision course: Lawmakers must address the country’s borrowing limit next year.

None of this is good news for a party that could then control one or both chambers on Capitol Hill. There is bad blood as deep as an ocean, the kind of differences that almost never are overcome in politics.

Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at North Carolina's Catawba College, called the McConnell-Scott feud “quite extraordinary.”

“Whether this is an internal battle for GOP leadership should they retake the majority in November, or whether it’s animosity between McConnell and Scott as to strategy for accomplishing that goal, it is highly unusual for a party’s Senate leader and election-arm leader to publicly air their grievances at the start of the campaign's final stage,” Bitzer said. “Normally, it’s an all-hands-on-deck call for party members to unify, rally and support all candidates.”

What’s different now?

“Perhaps the continuing division of Trumpism in the GOP, along with elected officials’ inherent power ambitions, may signal more cracks than cohesion in the electoral push towards November,” Bitzer said.

Far-right factions in the House and Senate already making noise about 2023 have something in common: They are aligned with Trump. He often praises them by name as they push back against their own leaders.

That most frequently happens on matters related to McConnell, whom conservatives want to play hardball on government funding. Trump? He wants that too — but he also has gone further, much further, than what might be deemed the Senate’s “MAGA faction.” He wants McConnell kicked out of leadership.

In his Sept. 15 Truth Social post, he was referring to an op-ed penned by Scott, Cruz and Lee that called for a longer-term CR. But then Trump, again, lowered the boom on McConnell.

“The Republican Senate must do something about this absolute Loser, Mitch McConnell, who folds every time against the Democrats--and he’s only getting worse!” he wrote, a slightly tamer call to action than this one from Aug. 24: “A new Republican Leader in the Senate should be picked immediately!”

McConnell, wisely, does not want his party blamed for another government shutdown — not weeks before a crucial midterm election, not after it, not ever. But Trump is likely to use a number of coming shutdown and federal default showdowns to pit his MAGA acolytes against McConnell.

‘Dismiss McConnell’?

If voters hand Republicans either majority control — or both — Trump would instantly again become the most important Republican on Capitol Hill as the House Freedom Caucus and others would similarly pull House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy to the right.

“I would say … there’s no question that a lot of the significant things that happened in the Trump administration happened because of Sen. McConnell,” retiring Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt said Tuesday. The McConnell ally was asked if McConnell and a possibly returning President Trump could work together. He grimaced and merely extended one hand, then turned and walked away.

Blunt won’t be around for whatever the Senate GOP caucus becomes next year. But Sen. John Cornyn of Texas will. He did little in a brief interview minutes later to quash the notion of an unhelpful McConnell-Trump dynamic.

“It depends on who is in the majority. … The former president’s entitled to his point of view,” Cornyn said. “I don’t see that as being conclusive. But he still has quite a following, and obviously as representatives of those voters in the states where he is most active, that will definitely have some influence on, you know, our results.”

“We have to manage those kinds of crosscurrents all the time around here to get things done,” he said, adding about Trump: “He makes a big splash.”

Along with occasional tidal waves.

For McConnell, one former senior Senate GOP aide said he will have to keep an eye on more than just his MAGA faction and Trump, whose legal troubles grew Wednesday when New York’s attorney general went public with claims of widespread fraud by his businesses, contending Trump himself signed off on criminal acts.

“McConnell will easily outlast Trump,” said Hoagland. “He may need to worry more about what Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has to say … and the relationship, if any, between Scott and DeSantis.”

But another Congress watcher is not ruling out Trump going all-in, should his party take the Senate and he senses a chance to settle his beef with McConnell once and for all.

“It would be a huge shake-up if Republicans dismiss McConnell as their leader, with Trump trying to push things to his favor,” said Bitzer, the Catawba College professor. “If Trump gets his candidates elected this November, then the push might be more significant to oust McConnell and install a true Trump loyalist — perhaps someone like Scott.”

In Trump World, some figures — including former strategist Steve Bannon — appear out, only to return. So perhaps the former president and McConnell could sit down, break bread and hash things out. What an episode of the “Trump Show” that would be.

“I don’t think that would …” Cornyn began, pausing with a knowing smirk while mulling the right words about a feud he could soon find himself helping manage. “I don’t think they will.”

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which first appeared in the subscription-only, and newly rebranded, CQ Afternoon Briefing newsletter.