Update, Nov. 16, 2022, at 2:27 p.m.: Mitch McConnell promptly defeated Rick Scott for Republican leader, in a 37-to-10 vote. A separate vote to delay the leadership election failed 32 to 16.
The Senate Republicans’ weekly Tuesday lunch usually lasts about an hour and a half, with members streaming in and out at their leisure. One week after the 2022 midterms, it lasted three and a half hours. There was no leisure to be had.
Republicans, of course, failed to retake the Senate this election cycle, and during their long-ranging and “lively” discussion—to use one of the senators’ own euphemisms—about why, Florida Sen. Rick Scott made an announcement: He would be challenging Mitch McConnell for Republican leader.
It’s the first challenge McConnell has faced in his 16 years atop the Republican conference. And if McConnell is to be believed, it doesn’t stand a chance.
“I think the outcome is pretty clear,” McConnell said in a post-lunch press conference from which one member of leadership was notably absent. (Scott serves as National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman.) “I have the votes; I will be elected. The only issue is whether we do it sooner or later.”
All of this is part of a post-election scramble that has left Republicans all over Congress pointing fingers at one another. In the House, where Republicans are poised to hold a narrow majority, there is much gnashing of teeth about who will lead and how. But in the Senate, it’s more surprising to see such a mutinous scene.
No one quite predicted that Tuesday’s remonstrations-fueled lunch would stretch to 4 o’clock. But as McConnell’s no. 2, South Dakota Sen. John Thune did predict on Monday that it would feature an “airing of grievances” from senators like Scott, Ted Cruz, and Josh Hawley, who’ve been persistently griping about McConnell over the past few days. (Coincidentally, they’re all known to harbor presidential ambitions. And mean, ol’ “Washington establishment” Mitch makes for a pretty good foil in a Republican presidential primary.)
“Feisty is a good word,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn said Tuesday morning of the tone he expected.
Outside the room where Senate Republicans were meeting, dozens of reporters crowded the elevator-bank corridor, awaiting word of the disarray inside. Senators who did pop out were a bit ashen-looking and especially tight-lipped about what was going on. Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley stuck out his arm to block reporters from hounding him for gossip during a break. Grassley, 89, just won another six-year term. One wonders if he was jealous of the retiring senators, like Ohio’s Rob Portman, who escaped early.
You can’t often hear much of what goes on inside Senate Republicans’ private meetings. But at one point, you could certainly hear the elevated voice of Cruz.
Since the midterms, Cruz has been “so pissed off, I cannot even see straight,” as he said on a Monday podcast. He had blamed McConnell for not putting money behind Blake Masters’ candidacy in Arizona, and said that if “there’s a Republican who can win, who’s not gonna support Mitch, the truth of the matter is he’d rather the Democrat win.” (That’s one man’s theory. McConnell’s super PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, reportedly said that Masters scored “the worst focus group results of any candidate” it had ever seen, so, instead, it diverted its money to candidates who weren’t the worst it had ever seen, … like Dr. Oz. It really didn’t have a lot to work with.)
Cruz was somewhat more diplomatic after Tuesday’s lunch confab.
“We just finished a three and a half hour lunch where we had the most vigorous discussion on the topic of leadership that we have ever had in the 10 years I have been in the Senate,” Cruz told reporters.
That I can believe. The question of McConnell’s leadership, at least inside the Capitol, has never been asked. Sure, there are always gripes about stray tactical decisions here and there: whether to filibuster this bill, whether to vote on that one, and so on. But McConnell has been the unopposed Republican leader for so long precisely because Senate Republicans trust his strategic acumen. Now there’s at least a bloc willing to say he’s no longer the right guy to lead them into another election.
Rick Scott, however, is a curious choice for a replacement. If the problem is that Senate leadership blew the election … well, who, again, is the leadership member at the helm of Senate Republicans’ campaign committee? There was a reason, after all, that Scott originally passed on the idea of a hostile takeover after last week’s lousy results.
“I like Rick a lot. I think he’s a great senator,” North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer told reporters. “But if you’re going to assess blame for election losses, I don’t know how you trade in the leader for the chairman of the NRSC. That’s just sort of basic for me.”
Scott and McConnell have had a simmering feud all year. In February, Scott released a controversial Republican agenda, against McConnell’s wishes, that would’ve raised taxes on the poorest Americans and put Medicare and Social Security up for renewal after five years. Scott, meanwhile, has accused McConnell of bad-mouthing Republican Senate candidates in private and diverting donors away from the NRSC and toward his PAC. Their respective henchmen have been publicly litigating this dispute since the election, even while the Senate Republicans are still trying to win a seat in Georgia. (Wyoming Sen. Cynthia Lummis, at least, was trying her best on Tuesday to keep things focused by responding to reporters’ questions about Republican infighting with the mantra “Georgia, Georgia, Georgia.”)
Scott and McConnell hashed out their disputes in person during the lunch. But Scott is making his challenge about much more than the races McConnell did or didn’t put money behind this year. It’s about McConnell’s very way of, well, ruling. In a lengthy letter announcing his candidacy, Scott offered a laundry list of complaints he has heard from fellow Republicans since entering the Senate in 2019: how Senate Republican leadership should allow more members to provide input, how it’s not prioritizing cutting spending, how it doesn’t coordinate better with House Republicans, how it “constantly gives in to the Democrats and [has] no backbone” or cuts deals with Chuck Schumer, how it ran against Democrats this cycle instead of advancing a more detailed agenda, and on and on.
“And then there are some that are happy with the way things are going,” Scott concluded.
Indiana Sen. Mike Braun said he would support Scott, barring the entrance of another candidate for the job: “I think that when you keep having the same results—in presidential elections, we’ve won one popular vote since 2004 or something—it ought to cause you to have some deep thought about what you do differently.” (Republicans have won the presidential popular vote exactly zero times since 2004.)
McConnell supporters in the conference, of whom there are many more, are wholly unswayed by Scott and others arguing for leadership change. McConnell has gotten them through a lot.
South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds noted that because of McConnell’s leadership, “we have a Supreme Court which is conservative in nature” and pushed through tax reform. “And I think the leadership has done in this particular case”—the 2022 election—“what they could do with the resources they had.”
Utah Sen. Mitt Romney pointed out that McConnell had literally just paid for the reelection of one of his mutinous members, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson. Johnson, whose beefs with McConnell go back to the 2016 election, reportedly spoke for 30 minutes during the lunch.
“Mitch raised an extraordinarily large amount of money,” Romney said. And when a top “adversary to his leadership was in a race, he provided $30 million to Wisconsin.”
In some ways, Romney was saying the quiet part out loud—again. Because the thing that earned McConnell the most criticism from fellow Republicans, including Scott, was his choice, in August, to say that “candidate quality” issues might be a factor in Republicans’ ability to retake the Senate.
McConnell, who has never admitted fault for anything, has also never admitted fault for that. And as he looks forward to trouncing Scott in his first internal challenge since the Bush administration, McConnell doubled down on that sentiment.
“The lesson is pretty clear,” McConnell said to reporters, of his takeaways from the losses, after explaining how independent voters were particularly dissuaded by GOP Senate candidates in Arizona and New Hampshire. “Senate races are different. Candidate quality, you’ll recall I said in August, is important.”
If leadership elections are delayed until after the Georgia runoff, Scott could earn a fitting honor for his tenure as chairman of the NRSC: In a match against Mitch, Scott would be the final Senate Republican candidate to lose big in a 2022 election.