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How Mitch McConnell keeps surviving

The 80-year-old has managed to hold on as the Senate's top Republican since 2006.

It’s official: Senate Republicans will enter the 118th Congress with Mitch McConnell of Kentucky at the helm — again. His victory over Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., means that, come January, McConnell will almost assuredly break the record as the longest-serving party leader in Senate history.

The outcome of Wednesday’s internal election was never in doubt, least of all to McConnell himself. “I have the votes,” he told reporters Tuesday after a three-hour caucus meeting at which Scott announced his challenge. “I will be elected. The only issue is whether we do it sooner or later.”

That McConnell was challenged at all is significant, which goes to show how permanent a fixture he has become. While House Republicans have churned through four leaders since 2006 — and three since 2015 — McConnell has held on. But it’s an open question whether, at 80, he will be able to maintain the same control over his caucus as it is forced to remain in the minority for at least two more years.

That McConnell was challenged at all is significant, which goes to show how permanent a fixture he has become.

Scott’s power play had been brewing since the summer. As chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he was responsible for recruiting and raising money for candidates for what was viewed as a prime chance to take back the Senate. But McConnell wasn’t quiet about his belief that “candidate quality” could doom the chances of a GOP Senate majority.

It’s an assessment McConnell was especially qualified to give. Elections are his bread and butter; his dedication to winning them has long been part of his appeal to his fellow senators. That reputation was forged in his long, sometimes intraparty, fight against campaign finance reform in the late 1980s and the 1990s. It was near the apex of that debate that he served two terms as NRSC chair.

McConnell’s record from that time, though, didn’t exactly live up to his mythos. He lost his first two bids to chair the NRSC before overseeing two unfortunate cycles for Republicans. The 1998 midterms were a wash, leaving the balance of power unchanged, a historical fluke. That disappointment prompted then-Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., to challenge McConnell. Hagel lost, badly, by a vote of 39-13. It was the last time until this week that McConnell would have any opposition for a leadership role.

Two years later, the GOP lost five seats, the worst Republican showing in Senate elections in over a decade. But McConnell escaped blame. “The political currents that were surging through America last year were not particularly good for Republicans, and I don’t think you can necessarily hold Mitch McConnell accountable for that,” Hagel told Roll Call in January 2001.

In 2002, he ran unopposed for Republican whip, the second most powerful position in the caucus, as the GOP prepared to reclaim control of the Senate. His colleagues’ confidence in him only grew: When Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee stepped down as Republican leader in 2006, there was no question that McConnell would be his successor. “Mitch McConnell will be the next majority leader — he has proven himself,” then-Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., told National Journal at the time. “He has been a very strong whip. People trust his judgment. They trust his policy judgment. They trust his political judgment. I don’t think there is much question about that at this time.”

“We represent a vigorous minority of 49 in a body where it takes 60 to do anything,” McConnell said upon his unhindered ascension. “And we are unified in our desire to work with the Democrats, across party lines, to see what we can accomplish for the country.” The reality of his tenure has proved extremely different from that professed love for bipartisanship. He has delighted in taking heat from all sides for tactics and strategies that have left the Senate itself sclerotic but with Republicans either in power or poised to grasp it in the next election for the vast majority of his time at the top.

What’s been shakier has been McConnell’s ability to wrangle his caucus toward any sort of career-defining legislative victory. For the most part, he seems to be OK with that, instead focusing more on preventing Democratic wins, reshaping the federal courts and not being primaried out of office himself. But as The Atlantic put it last year, “for all his skills in steering Republicans, McConnell’s authority as leader has never been a match for the presidential ambitions of his members.” 

McConnell has continued to set the bar for himself and his caucus nice and low.

When you look at who likely supported Scott’s quixotic bid, that analysis makes complete sense. While senators like Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham and Josh Hawley prefer to jockey ahead of potential White House runs, McConnell has always been a creature of the Senate.

How, though, to explain his longevity when there’s no shortage of ambitious men lurking behind him? I think his bumpy second term as NRSC chair has the answer. “The game of politics is won, McConnell has learned, by mastering the art of expectations,” Roll Call’s John Mercurio wrote back in 2001. And McConnell did just that at the time, convincing his colleagues that a run of bad luck meant there was only so much that could hold back defeat in several key races.

Since then, McConnell has continued to set the bar for himself and his caucus nice and low. Stymie Barack Obama’s agenda. Pack the Supreme Court with conservatives. Keep the legislative filibuster in place. Stay out of Donald Trump’s way. He has done these things and been re-elected to the Senate easily, all while maintaining the worst approval ratings of any party leader in Congress.

The last two years have been a little less successful for McConnell, even by his standards, with Democrats amassing serious successes over his obstruction. His feud with Trump has also undercut his appeal for his members who would like to win over the former president’s base. Scott urged Republicans in his letter announcing his run to aim a little higher and lay out a positive agenda, harking back to the Senate Republican agenda he released this summer over McConnell’s objections.

McConnell, though, knows better. He knows that the agenda Scott promised — which would cut Social Security and Medicare spending — would prove unpopular, just as he knew that the candidates Scott backed would struggle to win their races. McConnell has survived this whole time by asking his caucus a simple question: Would you rather win elections or get something done? By a vote of 37-11, Senate Republicans on Wednesday chose the former — again.