GOP leader McConnell enters new year with questions over future

GOP leader McConnell enters new year with questions over future

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will enter 2024 facing fresh questions about his future atop the GOP conference after a roller coaster year.

Over the past year he contended with health troubles, a challenge from the right and former President Trump becoming the favorite to be the GOP presidential nominee again.

McConnell has long faced queries about when his record-setting tenure as party leader will come to an end, but never more so than over the past year.

He easily swatted away an attempt by conservatives to oust him from the post, but the mere presence of the first challenge to his leadership signaled trouble and dovetailed with a rightward turn and increasing dissatisfaction from that group of lawmakers.

Perhaps more worrisome were the questions about his health. McConnell was sidelined last year with a concussion and a broken rib, prompting speculation about his future that only intensified after he noticeably froze twice in front of reporters over the summer.

Both the questions about his health and his ability to remain in his post — if he chooses to — have dissipated as McConnell has rebounded, several Senate Republicans and sources have told The Hill in recent months, helping him keep a strong hold on the conference. 

“He is the recognized leader. He is still the strategist that sees the long game, and he is the guy who is putting the strategy out in front of us right now. That has not changed,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.). “What I’m seeing has been a leader who has been on top of it.”

One Senate Republican predicted that if leadership elections had been held last month, McConnell’s support would be at a similar level to what it was last year when 11 members backed Sen. Rick Scott’s (R-Fla.) challenge. 

But what McConnell chooses to do next remains a major question, and colleagues’ predictions are mixed.

The Senate Republican told The Hill on the condition of anonymity that they believe it is “baked” that 2024 will be McConnell’s last year in charge. 

“I think it’s just more a function of how many sunrises and sunsets he’s observed and how long he’s been in politics,” the member said.

Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) said he would be “surprised” if McConnell ran again and pointed to past conversations they’ve had “about how he wants to leave [the] conference.” 

“I personally would be surprised if he ran again for leader,” Mullin said. “But I will tell you, I don’t think anybody challenges him or beats him if he decided to run.”

Others believe McConnell’s plans could depend on who wins the presidency in November, given the bad blood between him and Trump and his long-standing relationship with President Biden.

“Who’s the president?” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said in November when a reporter asked if McConnell seeks another term as leader.

McConnell and his team are well known for playing their cards close to the vest, and this situation is no different. He has maintained that he will serve out the next year as leader and the remainder of his Senate term, which runs through 2026, but has declined to delve any deeper. 

“Anybody who tells you they know is kidding themselves,” one senior Senate GOP aide said.

The “will he or won’t he” chatter comes as the Senate stares down what will be an arduous start to the year. Lawmakers will try to nail down a border deal in order to unlock Biden’s $111 billion supplemental and aid for Ukraine in their war against Russia, and race to fund the government. 

While he has been one of the Senate’s foremost Ukraine advocates, McConnell has received some plaudits in the conference, including from some conservatives, for stepping back from that push once funds didn’t make it into the stopgap spending bill in September and he realized a border deal would be the only solution. 

“I think it suggests that Mitch heard the conference pretty loud and clear,” Sen. JD Vance (R-Ohio) said. 

The push to pass a border deal will likely come during the beginning of the GOP presidential primaries, where Trump is the overwhelming favorite to become the party’s choice for a third time, potentially creating issues for McConnell as there is no love lost between the two. 

That sore spot cropped up just as the Senate left town when McConnell took a shot at the former president after Trump told supporters that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.” 

Some lawmakers have indicated that the possibility of Trump winning the White House again coupled with Senate Republicans staying in the minority could be more than enough to convince McConnell to call it quits in leadership. 

“It seems to me spending your last couple of [years] taking on someone who’s going to be an adversary — ” Cramer said, cutting himself off before finishing his thought. “I just don’t know what Mitch’s tolerance for misery is.”

But some members believe McConnell’s approach to the ex-president will remain unchanged. According to the anonymous Senate Republican, McConnell “is not the least bit worried about Trump” and remains “unfazed” by the barbs thrown his way by the former president.

However, Trump’s influence is creating headaches in other ways for the leader, especially as the composition of the conference has shifted away from those of McConnell’s ilk to those with views more similar and sympathetic to the former president. Vance, an ardent Trump backer, is a prime example as he replaced former Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who was part of McConnell’s leadership team before he departed. 

Despite the questions surrounding McConnell’s future, there is little jockeying underway to replace him.

Senators said that while there is some taking place at the conference level and on the 2024 political scene among the “Three Johns” — Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) — it has by no means burst into the open. All three are considered McConnell allies, but each has their strong suits if they were to seek the top spot. 

“No one’s jockeying for it openly … No one’s aiming at it. No one’s trying to undercut him,” Mullin said, comparing the situation with the years-long simmering battle in the House as former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and his team were always wary of maneuvers by House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.). 

“There was always a little bit of … a contest between McCarthy and Scalise. There’s none of that between McConnell and Thune,” said Mullin, a friend of McCarthy who also serves as the freshman class’s representative on Thune’s whip team. 

But for the next year at least, the conference is solidly with the Kentucky Republican, just as it has been since the mid-2000s. 

“I don’t think he had any problems in the first place,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the only senator who has served for longer than McConnell. “And I haven’t seen any difference in the 17 years he’s been in that position.”

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