Six months ago, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters that if voters elect enough Republican candidates, “I’ll be the majority leader.” The confident assertion was hardly outlandish: The Kentucky Republican has led the Senate GOP conference for 15 years, and there’s nothing to suggest he intends to step down anytime soon.
And yet, there are occasional hints — some subtle, some less so — that McConnell’s position is not nearly as strong as it once was. Fox News ran a report recently that raised a few eyebrows:
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott this week declined to back Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for another term as leader of the Senate Republicans. Scott was asked by Fox News Digital at the National Conservatism Conference if he supported McConnell in the leadership position next year.
“We’ll see what he wants to do,” the Floridian said. Scott added that he expects voters to reward the GOP with a majority, saying, “So, we’ll make a decision then.”
Or put another way, for McConnell, the leadership race is a foregone conclusion. For the NRSC chair, it is not.
There are a variety of related data points that have come to the fore in recent months, so let’s circle back to our earlier coverage and connect the dots:
Lindsey Graham: The South Carolina Republican suggested earlier this year that if McConnell intends to be the GOP leader in the next Congress, he’ll have to do more to align himself with Donald Trump.
Eric Schmitt: The GOP Senate nominee in Missouri, who’s heavily favored to win in the fall, declared last month that he’s not endorsing McConnell for party leader. The state attorney general added, “I think we need new leadership. Mitch McConnell was elected to the Senate in 1984, and the party’s priorities have changed pretty dramatically, and I don’t think he’s kept up with that.”
Blake Masters: The Republican nominee in Arizona said in May that he wants to “remake” the Republican Party, adding that he hoped to vote for a “viable alternative” to McConnell as the party’s leader in the chamber. In an interview with NBC News in July, Masters was asked whether he’d vote for McConnell. “I mean, we’ll see,” he replied. “We’ll see.”
Kelly Tshibaka: The GOP nominee in Alaska said she didn’t intend to support McConnell as the party’s leader in the chamber.
Don Bolduc: The Republican nominee in New Hampshire hasn’t explicitly said he’d oppose McConnell for Senate leader, but he recently did an on-air interview with a host who said, “Don’s not going to vote for Mitch McConnell. ... See you later, turtle.” Bolduc nodded during the exchange.
Mehmet Oz: The GOP nominee in Pennsylvania appeared on Fox News recently and refused to say whether he’d support McConnell as the party’s Senate leader.
At this point, the incumbent minority leader probably isn’t too concerned. After all, no one has said they intend to run against him for the position, and some of the candidates prepared to withhold their support will probably lose in November. The Kentuckian should still be seen as the favorite to lead Senate Republicans next year, whether the party is in the majority or not.
But the signs of potential trouble are not irrelevant, especially as Trump trashes McConnell on a very regular basis.
What would happen if the former president demands that Senate Republicans elect a different leader, and at least some of the newest GOP senators withhold their support from McConnell? What about if Republicans fall short of a majority and members blame their leaders? Watch this space.