Mitch McConnell moved on Thursday to quash speculation about whether he will finish out this Congress as GOP leader that spiked after a brief, very public freeze caused a national stir.
A spokesperson for the Senate minority leader said in a statement to POLITICO that “Leader McConnell appreciates the continued support of his colleagues, and plans to serve his full term in the job they overwhelmingly elected him to do.”
Those words mark McConnell’s strongest response yet to questions that have simmered inside and outside the Capitol about the future of Senate GOP leadership.
The 49-member GOP conference buzzed on Thursday over whether McConnell’s health could accelerate a second fight for control of their ranks — just months after the Kentucky Republican dispatched his first-ever challenge from Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.).
GOP senators’ opinions diverge on the question of when, or if, things will come to a head after McConnell’s on-camera health episode during a Wednesday press conference. Earlier this year, the 81-year-old McConnell fell and suffered a concussion that kept him away from the Senate for a few weeks.
Despite McConnell’s plans to serve out the next 17 months of his leadership term, some Republican senators are very informally and privately gaming out how and when they would transition to a new leader. It’s a tricky conversation for everyone involved.
“He comes out, loses his train of thought. And everybody’s asking: ‘What are you going to do about it?’” Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) said of McConnell.
“He’ll know when it’s time. He’s not going to put our caucus in harm’s way,” Tuberville added. “If he didn’t think he can do it, I’m sure he’ll make that decision.”
Tuberville supported McConnell last year, though the conservative demurred when asked if he’d commit to voting for McConnell as leader in 2024: “We’re talking about another year and a half. You don’t know if it’s going to affect him more and more as it goes. But right now, I’ve got no problems with what he’s doing or how he’s doing it.”
McConnell is the longest-serving Senate party leader of all time, and his term in office ends in 2026. Whenever he cedes the reins, three of his deputies are seen as in contention to succeed him: Sens. John Cornyn of Texas, Conference Chair John Barrasso of Wyoming and Minority Whip John Thune of South Dakota.
All three Johns are close allies of McConnell, and none would ever challenge him — Scott, too, said Thursday that he’s not thinking about it. There have also been no public demands from GOP senators to reassess their leadership; it would take only a handful of them to seek a special conference meeting to discuss a topic like that.
However, McConnell could certainly face a new challenge if he sought another term as leader after next fall’s election. Scott’s willingness to mount his long-shot bid last fall ended with 10 Republicans voting against McConnell — a not-insignificant number of rebels among a group of lawmakers who eat lunch together two or three times a week.
Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) said another contested race for GOP leader next year is possible but added that such intrigue had “no connection” with McConnell’s health.
“It could happen, maybe it won’t happen. And it has absolutely nothing to do with yesterday’s press conference,” Lummis said. “It’s all about who is interested in throwing their ideas into the mix and taking votes.”
Other Republicans think a leadership shakeup could happen more quickly in light of McConnell’s health, age and built-in base of disapproval within the party. (Donald Trump’s supporters are particularly antagonistic toward him.)
One GOP senator, granted anonymity to candidly assess the party dynamic, said that “the next leadership election is well underway.”
A second Republican senator said there could be “leadership jostling at some point if the condition of his health deteriorates” but that there is no real movement at the moment. McConnell’s freeze-up, this senator added, has simply caused “chatter among members of the conference, as nearly all of us tend to wonder what an incident like this one may signal about the future.”
Thune and Cornyn have both expressed public interest in eventually succeeding McConnell, and both said on Thursday they are not preparing for imminent leadership races.
“There’s no vacancy, and those elections won’t be until November of 2024,” Cornyn said. “So I guess the short answer is, there’s nothing to prepare for.”
“I’m not. It’s hypothetical,” Thune said in an interview when asked if he’s preparing for an election. He added that he would consider such a question “if and when the time comes.” Thune will be term-limited as party whip at the end of 2024; he succeeded Cornyn after term limits sidelined the Texan from the No. 2 role.
Barrasso said Thursday that he’ll “continue to serve the conference in the way I’ve always done.”
McConnell is “our leader, and he’s doing a great job,” Barrasso added. He’s in line to succeed Thune as whip, should McConnell serve past 2024.
And that’s certainly possible, despite the alarm stoked by McConnell’s apparent incident this week. Cornyn, for example, said he’d support McConnell as long as the Kentuckian wants to serve. Cornyn, Thune and Barrasso defended McConnell as sharp and unhampered by his concussion.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), another McConnell adviser, dismissed questions of another leadership fight: “What, because he fell down and lost his train of thought for a moment or two? No.”
McConnell could even win back some votes that he lost last year if he sought another term. Just ask Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who surprised many Republicans with his vote against McConnell last fall.
“He got an overwhelming vote in the conference, we’re focused on taking back 2024,” Graham said. “We’ll see what happens, I think he’s done a good job.”
Still, McConnell’s allies will have to contend with the tension caused by more than a half-dozen sitting GOP senators who wanted another person leading them.
Whether McConnell’s health ultimately emboldens his critics “remains to be seen,” said a third Republican senator who also addressed the thorny topic on condition of anonymity.
“It seems to me that Senate Republicans are splitting more than they used to be. We have about 12, 13 senators that are kind of in this minority group,” this senator said.
“And I don’t imagine that their satisfaction with the way the Senate is being led is any different than it was [last year].”
The post McConnell seeks to silence GOP speculation about his future appeared first on Politico.