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McConnell to step down from Senate leadership

Kentucky Republican tangled with Trump, the party's likely presidential nominee

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks during the Senate Republicans’ weekly news conference in the Capitol on Jan.  17, flanked by, from left, Sens. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.;  John Thune, R-S.D.; and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks during the Senate Republicans’ weekly news conference in the Capitol on Jan. 17, flanked by, from left, Sens. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.; John Thune, R-S.D.; and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Mitch McConnell’s announcement that he will voluntarily end his record-setting reign as Senate Republican leader drew praise and some derision Wednesday, as a contest to succeed him that was already underway began to move out from behind the scenes.

Potential candidates to replace McConnell include the “three Johns,” as they’re known, who have all served as deputies under McConnell in recent years. South Dakota Sen. John Thune, currently the No. 2 Senate Republican; Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the current conference chair; and Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a former GOP whip who termed out of leadership, could all make a run for party leader. 

“Mitch leaves enormous shoes to fill, and it’s with humility that I look forward to having a discussion with my colleagues about what the future holds for the Senate Republican Conference and a new generation of leadership,” Thune said in a statement.

Barrasso said he was focused on the November elections and winning a Republican Senate majority.

“I’m going to talk to members of the conference, hear what they have to say, listen to them in terms of what direction that they want to take with the conference,” Barrasso told reporters.

‘A lot of free dinners’

Those three, and any other interested candidates, could now spend much of the year courting support for an internal election that typically occurs after the November elections. Sen. Mike Rounds made an early endorsement on Wednesday for Thune, his home state colleague, but others said they planned to hold out on any announcements. 

“I wouldn’t announce it early anyway because I’m hoping to get a lot of free dinners out of the Johns,” North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer said jokingly when asked who he would back as McConnell’s successor. 

Cramer called McConnell the “standard bearer of the Reagan era,” but noted much of the party has shifted away from that positioning.

“Mitch is more of a reflection of that change in our party than sort of leading that charge,” he said. 

Sen. Rick Scott, who unsuccessfully challenged McConnell for party leader in 2022 and is up for reelection in Florida this year, didn’t say whether he’d run again for the top job but said it’s been clear that he has “long believed that we need new leadership in the Senate that represents our voters and the issues we were sent here to fight for.”

“This is an opportunity to refocus our efforts on solving the significant challenges facing our country and actually reflect the aspirations of voters,” Scott said in a statement. 

Former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, Scott’s likely Democratic challenger in November, suggested that Scott could run again to lead the party or serve in leadership and said that would be “disastrous.” Asking who a candidate would support for leadership if elected can be a common attack line on the campaign trail. 

“An extreme Republican Senate caucus led by Rick Scott would be disastrous for working families in Florida and across the country,” she said in a statement. 

Will serve out term

McConnell, 82, first took over as the chamber’s GOP leader in 2007 and is the longest-serving leader of either party in the Senate. In a floor speech Wednesday afternoon, he said he plans to serve the rest of his current term in the Senate, his seventh, which runs until early 2027. 

“I’ll complete my job my colleagues have given me until we select a new leader in November and they take the helm next January,” he said.

His announcement comes as Republicans are all but certain to nominate former President Donald Trump to run against President Joe Biden this year. McConnell and Trump had an uneasy alliance during Trump’s first term, before it broke down after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

McConnell held a firm grasp on Senate Republicans for years, but some members of the party have grown restless in recent years.

Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, a McConnell critic, called McConnell’s announcement “good news,” but said the conference needs new leadership now. 

‘Irreplaceable role’ as world leader

McConnell didn’t directly refer to Trump and his role in the party during his remarks Wednesday, although he did tout the recent approval of a package to provide supplemental funding to Ukraine, among other countries, that split the Republican Conference and faces an uncertain future in the House.

“I’m unconflicted about the good within our country and the irreplaceable role we play as the leader of the free world,” he said. “It’s why I worked so hard to get the national security package passed earlier this month.”

Kansas Sen. Roger Marshall pointed to McConnell’s support for Ukraine as a sign of how he has not changed as the party’s base became more populist.

“We wish Ukraine the best, but until we secure our southern border I don’t think it’s much of a point even talking about Ukraine,” Marshall said.  “So I think we’re seeing this populist brand of conservatism rise to the top.”

McConnell suggested that he’ll continue to be a reliable sparring partner for those who disagree with him. 

“I still have enough gas in my tank to thoroughly disappoint my critics and I intend to do so with all the enthusiasm with which they’ve become accustomed,” he said. 

At a time where the Republican Party has seemed to move away from its traditionally expansive view of America’s role in the world, McConnell has been steadfast.

“No one in the Republican Party has echoed the themes of peace through strength – the Reagan model of national security – better than Senator Mitch McConnell,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in a statement after McConnell’s remarks. “He passionately believes in a strong America leading from the front and has been uncompromising in his view that we must deal with threats rather than wish them away.”

Thune and Cornyn both sat in the chamber during McConnell’s announcement. Other colleagues in the chamber included Republican Sens. Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Cynthia Lummis, along with Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.

“During my years in the Senate, Mitch McConnell and I rarely saw eye to eye when it came to our politics or our policy preferences,” Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement. “But I am very proud that we both came together in the last few years to lead the Senate forward at critical moments when our country needed us, like passing the CARES Act in the early days of the COVID pandemic, finishing our work to certify the election on January 6th, and more recently working together to fund the fight for Ukraine.”

Health struggles

McConnell won a round of applause after his speech, and a hug from Collins, and later Sinema. Schumer crossed the aisle to shake hands with McConnell. Collins, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, gave a short speech thanking McConnell, a longtime committee member, while he remained on the floor. 

The Kentucky Republican did not mention his recent health struggles, which included a fall last year at a Republican political event in Washington that led to a concussion and several weeks away from the Capitol. He was medically cleared to work by the Capitol’s attending physician in August after he appeared to briefly freeze while answering questions from the press in Kentucky, which was reminiscent of a separate incident during a Capitol press conference earlier last summer. 

McConnell’s sister-in-law was killed in a car crash earlier this month, which he said had led to a “particularly difficult time” for his family. “When you lose a loved one, particularly at a young age, there is a certain introspection that accompanies the grieving process,” he said. “Perhaps it is God’s way of reminding you of your own life’s journey to reprioritize the impact on the world that we will all inevitably leave behind.”

Nina Heller, David Lerman, Caitlin Reilly and Daniela Altimari contributed to this report.

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