At a Capitol Hill news conference on Tuesday, Sen. Ted Cruz was asked whether he believed it was time to replace Sen. Mitch McConnell as his party’s minority leader. “I think it is,” the Texas Republican replied.
McConnell was asked soon after for his reaction to the comments. The Kentuckian tried to shrug it off with a joke, conceding that Cruz is “not a fan” of his.
If the Texan were the GOP leader’s only intraparty critic, that might have helped end the larger discussion, but the truth is a bit more complex — because Cruz isn’t alone.
Sen. Rand Paul appeared on Fox News this week and host Laura Ingraham asked him about his party’s leader. Paul said, referring to McConnell:
“He’s completely out of touch with Kentucky Republicans, with conservative Republicans. ... His approval ratings in Kentucky are almost below zero, they are the lowest of any elected official in the United States. ... He is in the minority of his caucus.”
It’s worth emphasizing for context that Paul and McConnell are not just fellow Republicans, they’re representing the same state. As recently as 2016, McConnell even endorsed Paul’s ill-fated presidential candidacy.
But that didn’t stop Kentucky’s junior senator from raking Kentucky’s senior senator over the coals on national television this week.
The same day, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin blamed McConnell for the party’s bizarre rejection of the border plan GOP senators requested. “We had 10 of us to vote against him at the start of this Congress. There may be a few more people questioning him,” Johnson told NBC News. “I hope a lot of my colleagues are asking themselves: How did we get ourselves in a situation where we’re being blamed for Biden’s open border policy? How could that be possible? The answer is McConnell made that possible.”
A day earlier, Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, reflecting on the GOP’s rejection of a border bill crafted by Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, told Politico, “It’s not James Lankford’s fault. It’s Mitch McConnell’s fault.”
In the recent past, sitting senators wouldn’t even consider slamming their own party leader — out loud and on the record — this way. But as McConnell’s power wanes, his members feel increasingly confident about being able to get away with such condemnations.
What’s more, the minority leader’s influence appears to be evaporating. Before the border deal was announced, McConnell urged his members to get behind it. After the compromise package was unveiled, he was among its most vocal proponents. His members proceeded to ignore him.
Soon after, McConnell also endorsed a stand-alone security aid bill, and most of his members ignored him on this, too.
Circling back to our recent coverage, after the 2022 midterm elections, the Kentucky Republican faced the most serious intraparty challenge of his career, leaving little doubt that a significant chunk of his GOP colleagues were eager to oust him. When McConnell had some health difficulties last summer, talk of replacing him grew considerably louder.
In the months that followed, the Senate minority leader found his members routinely ignoring his directives, all while Donald Trump went after McConnell with contempt and vitriol the former president usually reserves for Democrats.
This week, however, McConnell’s stature seems to have reached a new low — and it’s far from clear what, if anything, he can do to improve his standing.
While the drama among Senate Republicans is notable enough, there are also practical considerations to consider. If members of the Senate Democratic majority wanted to negotiate with their GOP colleagues — about any issue — who would they talk to? In theory, one party’s leadership would reach out to the other.
In practice, a growing number of Senate Republicans are simply not on the same page as their minority leader.
This post updates our related earlier coverage.