WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. Mitch McConnell was reelected as Republican leader Wednesday, quashing a challenge from Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the Senate GOP campaign chief criticized after a disappointing performance in the midterm elections that kept Senate control with Democrats.
McConnell, of Kentucky, easily swatted back the challenge from Scott in the first-ever attempt to oust him after many years as GOP leader. The vote was 37-10, senators said, with one other senator voting present. McConnell is poised to become the Senate's longest-serving leader when the new Congress convenes next year.
“I'm not going anywhere,” McConnell said after the nearly four-hour closed-door meeting. He said he was “pretty proud” of the outcome but acknowledged the work ahead. "I think everybody in our conference agrees we want to give it our best shot.”
At a GOP senators lunch on Tuesday, Scott and McConnell had traded what colleagues said were “candid” and “lively” barbs. The 10 Republican senators joining in Wednesday's revolt against McConnell and voting for Scott included some of the most conservative figures and those aligned with former President Donald Trump.
“Why do I think he won?” said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., among McConnell’s detractors. “Because the conference didn’t want to change course.”
The unrest in the Senate GOP is similar to the uproar among House Republicans in the aftermath of the midterm elections that left the party split over Trump's hold on the party. House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy won the nomination from colleagues to run for House speaker, with Republicans on the cusp of seizing the House majority, but he faces stiff opposition from a core group of right-flank Republicans unconvinced of his leadership.
Scott said in a statement that while the “results of today’s elections weren’t what we hoped for, this is far from the end of our fight to Make Washington Work.”
Retreating to the Capitol’s Old Senate Chamber for the private vote, the senators first considered, then rejected, a motion by a Scott ally, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, to delay the leadership votes until after the Dec. 6 runoff election in Georgia between Republican Herschel Walker and incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock that will determine the final makeup of the Senate.
Cruz said it was a “cordial discussion, but a serious discussion" about how Republicans in the minority can work effectively.
In all, 48 GOP new and returning senators voted. Retiring Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska missed the vote to be home after his office said his wife was recovering from a nonthreatening seizure.
Senators also elected the other GOP leadership posts. McConnell's top posts ranks remained stable, with Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., as GOP whip, and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., in the No. 3 spot as chairman of the GOP conference. Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines was elected to take over the campaign operation from Scott.
The challenge by Scott, who was urged by Trump to confront McConnell, escalated a long-simmering feud between Scott, who led the Senate Republican's campaign arm this year, and McConnell over the party's approach to try to reclaim the Senate majority.
Restive conservatives in the chamber have lashed out at McConnell's handling of the election, as well as his iron grip over the Senate Republican caucus.
Trump has been pushing for the party to dump McConnell ever since the Senate leader gave a scathing speech blaming then-President Trump for the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
McConnell has forcefully pushed back, blaming the Republicans problems on what he has called “candidate quality” after many of his preferred candidates were replaced by Trump-backed Republicans on the ballot.
McConnell said Republicans put up the kinds of candidates that “frightened” independent and moderate voters.
Those voters held the view that “We were not dealing with issues in a responsible way, and we were spending too much time on negativity and attacks and chaos," McConnell said earlier this week. “They were frightened.”
Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who led efforts with Cruz to postpone the election, spoke for some time Wednesday as did ally Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, according to people familiar with the private meeting. The question that I posed to both leader candidates is, ‘On what issues are we willing to fight,’” Cruz said.
Among the many reasons Scott listed for mounting a challenge is that Republicans had compromised too much with Democrats in the last Congress — producing bills that President Joe Biden has counted as successes and that Democrats ran on in the 2022 election.
The feud between Scott and McConnell has been percolating for months and reached a boil as election results trickled in showing there would be no Republican Senate wave, as Scott predicted, according to senior Republican strategists who were not authorized to discuss internal issues by name and insisted on anonymity.
The feuding started not long after Scott took over the party committee after the 2020 election. Many in the party viewed his ascension as an effort to build his national political profile and donor network ahead of a potential presidential bid in 2024. Some were irked by promotional materials from the committee that were heavy on Scott’s own biography, while focusing less on the candidates who are up for election.
Then came Scott’s release of an 11-point plan early this year, which called for a modest tax increase for many of the lowest-paid Americans, while opening the door for cutting Social Security and Medicare, which McConnell swiftly repudiated even as he declined to offer an agenda of his own.
The feud was driven in part by the fraying trust in Scott’s leadership, as well as poor finances of the committee, which was $20 million in debt, according to a senior Republican consultant.
Democrats have postponed their internal elections until after Thanksgiving.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the 2022 midterm elections at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections. And check out https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections to learn more about the issues and factors at play in the midterms.
Lisa Mascaro, Brian Slodysko And Mary Clare Jalonick, The Associated Press