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McConnell prevails in Senate GOP leadership contest

Senators reject Cruz proposal to delay election until after Georgia runoff

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., conducts a news conference last month. Joining him, from left, are Sens. John Barrasso, Joni Ernst, Rick Scott and John Thune.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., conducts a news conference last month. Joining him, from left, are Sens. John Barrasso, Joni Ernst, Rick Scott and John Thune. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

With a contested leadership race in the rearview mirror, Senate Republicans now need to figure out if they can unify heading into the 118th Congress.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell handily won reelection to his leadership post Wednesday after a challenge from National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott.

The result of the contest between the Kentucky and Florida senators was no surprise, with the vote coming one day after Scott formally announced his challenge during a roughly three-hour Senate Republican Conference meeting. Behind closed doors, senators aired grievances after a lackluster midterm election performance in which Democrats retained control of the Senate and may even gain a seat.

Senators said the vote was 37-10. One member voted present.

“I want to repeat again, I have the votes. I will be elected. The only issue is whether we do it sooner or later,” McConnell had told reporters Tuesday.

Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz sought to delay the leadership elections until after a Dec. 6 runoff in Georgia so that Republican Herschel Walker, if he prevailed, could participate in the leadership discussions. That fell short 32-16. Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski was participating in Wednesday’s votes although Alaska has not yet worked its way through the ranked-choice voting process.

Allies of McConnell and Scott have been sniping openly in recent days, exchanging barbs about the strategy for this year’s midterms, in which Scott’s NRSC and the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund took different approaches.

In the run-up to the vote, Republicans were openly questioning the financial management of the NRSC under Scott, to which he responded by charging the previous leadership, under Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., with paying “unauthorized and improper bonuses.”

“I’ll have some private conversations with members about that,” Young said Wednesday. “But the entire operation was run with great integrity, entirely above board, and [I am] happy to offer particulars to any interested parties as it relates to the matter.”

The conference also decided Wednesday that the next leader of the NRSC will be Sen. Steve Daines, a Montana Republican, who will enter the role with what looks on paper to be a favorable map for 2024. His Democratic colleague from the Big Sky State, Sen. Jon Tester, is one of several potentially vulnerable senators up for reelection.

“I’m honored that my colleagues elected me to serve as NRSC Chairman.  We are going to fight for every seat and work hard to build a lasting Senate Republican Majority,” Daines said in a statement. “The choice for Americans in 2024 will be clear: a Republican Party that will secure a stronger, brighter future for America and a Democrat Party that will take our country further down a path toward socialism.”

House Republicans, who claimed a narrow majority Wednesday evening when The Associated Press called a 218th House seat for the GOP more than a week after midterm votes were cast, are also dealing with rancor. On Tuesday, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was nominated to be the next speaker in a 188-31 vote over Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz. McCarthy, R-Calif., will need to shore up support among his colleagues before the new Congress formally votes on the position on Jan. 3, when he will likely need 218 votes. 

Senate Democrats will hold their leadership elections in December, but Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer made it known Wednesday that he will be nominating Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington to succeed Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., as president pro tempore. Murray will become the first woman to hold the constitutional office, which will put her in the line of succession for the presidency after the vice president and House speaker.

Murray also will be the first senator in generations not to be the most senior member of their party in the role, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., having made clear that she would pass on the position.

In the Senate GOP battle,  Scott’s theory about what happened earlier this month was that voters inclined to vote Republican want to see the party’s plans, a point on which he expounded in a “Dear Colleague” letter to fellow Senate Republicans.

“We know that chief among our problems in races across America was a lack of Republican voter turnout. There may be many reasons for that, but after travelling the country to support our candidates I believe voters want a plan,” Scott wrote. “They are begging us to tell them what we will do when we are in charge.”

Scott’s own policy proposals, including one that would require legislation to be reauthorized every five years, became a favorite campaign talking point of Democrats, including President Joe Biden.

“I believe it’s time for the Senate Republican Conference to be far more bold and resolute than we have been in the past. We must start saying what we are for, not just what we are against,” Scott wrote. “I do not believe we can simply continue to say the Democrats are radical, which they are. Republican voters expect and deserve to know our plan to promote and advance conservative values.”

McConnell, who had spoken before the midterm elections of concerns about “candidate quality,” expounded on that point Tuesday afternoon.

“We underperformed among independents and moderates because their impression of many of the people in our party in leadership roles is that they’re involved in chaos, negativity, excessive attacks,” the Kentucky Republican said. “And it frightened independent and moderate Republican voters, and we saw that, which is why you all recall I never predicted a red wave. We never saw that in any of our polling in the states that we were counting on to win.”

Tuesday’s extended conference lunch gave Republican senators a chance to voice concerns about a midterm election that did not go to their liking, though Scott’s announcement of a challenge to McConnell came rather late in the meeting.

“So the truth is, is that independent voters who voted for President Obama and then turned and voted for President Trump, so true independents — and they don’t approve of the job Joe Biden is doing — many of them stayed home rather than vote for Republicans,” Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., told reporters. “That should actually tell us something as Republicans.

“I think they said, ‘Yeah, I don’t like what’s going on in the country. But I look at you Republicans and I don’t think you’ll do anything about it,’ so they opt to stay home,” said Hawley, who said he would not support McConnell.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, a member of the McConnell leadership team, suggested that a leadership battle should not be seen as an anomaly.

“This shouldn’t strike us as odd that people are stepping forward, but what they have to do is present a real plan on what they want to see for the future of our conference,” Ernst said. “I didn’t necessarily hear that, maybe, coming from Rick Scott.”

Leadership challenges that actually lead to votes within either the Democratic caucus or Republican Conference are rare in the modern Senate. The last truly contested Republican leadership battle came in 1996, when Kansas GOP Sen. Bob Dole resigned as he was running for president. The ensuing leadership race ended up as a Mississippi intrastate battle, with Sen. Trent Lott easily defeating Sen. Thad Cochran.

Beyond the particulars of this week’s midterm election outcome, Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn said that some of the grievances in the Republican Conference point to broader issues with the Senate, rather than with any particular leader.

Cornyn, a McConnell ally who previously served as Republican whip, said he agreed that leadership needs to be more inclusive, but he pointed to an alternate explanation for what’s causing members to feel they are not involved enough.

“The cause of that, I think, is the dysfunction of our Senate committees, because what happens when the committees don’t function like they should, people don’t have a chance to participate at that level,” Cornyn told reporters. “So bills come to the floor cooked up in leader’s conference rooms, and people are given a choice to vote up or down.”

Mary Ellen McIntire, Michael Macagnone, Suzanne Monyak and Aidan Quigley contributed to this report.

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