Will Mitch McConnell run again in 2026? KY politicians wonder about possible replacements

By this time next year, Mitch McConnell won’t be in his current leadership post in the U.S. Senate.

That news had some in Kentucky wondering Wednesday whether, by this time next year, the statesman won’t be running for re-election to his Senate seat. Or if he’ll even be there.

Loyal members of the state’s GOP establishment — McConnell has played a pivotal role in the growth of the state party since his 1984 election to the Senate — have either remained mum on the topic or predicted the 82-year-old could seek re-election in 2026 when his term runs out.

“I would never count out Mitch McConnell. Never underestimate him,” Kentucky Senate GOP Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said. “I just think this means he’s not going to be the Republican leader.”

Other Kentucky politicos disagree.

“I think it means he will not run for re-election,” Mike Ward, a former Democratic U.S. Representative from Louisville who served in Washington with McConnell in the 1990s, told the Herald-Leader.

Who’s right? And if McConnell does not decide to run for re-election, what would that look like?

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Lay of the land

For the better part of a year, speculation about the Senate Minority Leader’s outlook on continuing in the office, as well as 2026, has abounded.

McConnell’s office has remained adamant in the face of much-publicized health scares — including a concussion and two freeze ups on camera — that he intends to serve out the remainder of his six-year term.

Still, some have raised questions about the process for replacing him should he need to vacate the office for whatever reason. The statehouse Republican majorities, with McConnell’s blessing, passed a law in 2021 that made the governor appoint a replacement from a list approved by the state party of the outgoing Senator. However, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear has not committed to following that law, and some Democrats speculate he won’t.

House Majority Floor Leader Steven Rudy, R-Paducah, filed a bill earlier this month to take that power away entirely from governors and kick it to a special election whenever a vacancy occurs. He said Wednesday the bill would get heard in committee on Thursday.

Rudy said this bill has nothing to do with McConnell and everything to do with his disdain for gubernatorial appointments of U.S. Senators. He called McConnell a “great supporter and great friend,” since he gained his seat in 2004 as a 26 year old.

Rudy added he was surprised by McConnell’s announcement Wednesday.

“I fully anticipated that he was running again. I don’t know if it has anything to do with 2026 or not,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaks at the Graves County Republican Party Breakfast at WK&T Technology Park in Mayfield, Ky., on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2023. Ryan C. Hermens/rhermens@herald-leader.com
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaks at the Graves County Republican Party Breakfast at WK&T Technology Park in Mayfield, Ky., on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2023. Ryan C. Hermens/rhermens@herald-leader.com

Political observers see the seat, should it open, as heavily leaning Republican. Both U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY, and McConnell’s last wins were by more than 20 points. Especially if Beshear, a popular Democrat whose term runs through 2027, keeps to his word of serving out his full second gubernatorial term, most see the seat as safely red.

Beshear, when asked about, thanked McConnell “for his years of service to the country.”

“His willingness to serve and serve for how long he has in a position of leadership is pretty special and we just want to say thank you,” Beshear said.

Comment on the news provided by Paul’s office was brief.

“I’d like to congratulate Senator McConnell on his long tenure,” Paul said.


In a brief survey of Republicans in the State Capitol Wednesday, none predicted that McConnell wouldn’t run for re-election in 2026, when he’ll be 84. But some evaluated the field.

Former Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson was among the last crop of Republicans to run for an open Senate seat in Kentucky. McConnell backed Grayson in that primary over Paul.

Grayson said he didn’t know what McConnell would do in 2026, but if he doesn’t run there will be lots of Kentucky Republicans look at it.

“The reality if you’re a Republican is that since 1984, one of those U.S. Senate seats hasn’t been available to you,” Grayson said. “My guess is we’d have a lot of people look seriously at it. Would you have a lot of serious candidates running? That’s difficult to say.”

House Speaker David Osborne, R-Prospect, and Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, both were quick to mention a re-election fundraiser they co-hosted for McConnell when asked about whether or not he’ll run again.

“The only thing I can tell you for sure is that I will not be running in ‘26,” Osborne said.

Among the names mentioned in Republican circles of people who could be running:

  • Former attorney general and GOP gubernatorial candidate Daniel Cameron, who has worked for McConnell in the past. He lost to Beshear by five percentage points in 2023.

  • Sixth Congressional District Rep. Andy Barr, a longtime Central Kentucky representative who is raising large sums of campaign cash working to gain an important chairmanship in Washington.

  • Fourth Congressional District Rep. Thomas Massie, an established conservative contrarian and firebrand. He’s made national headlines for his actions and national debt hawk posture in Washington.

  • First Congressional District Rep. James Comer, whose national profile and donor base has risen during his inquiry into President Joe Biden.

  • Kelly Craft, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who finished third in the 2023 gubernatorial primary. Craft is part of a billionaire family alongside her husband Joe Craft, a prominent philanthropist and coal magnate.

  • Secretary of State Michael Adams, who like Cameron has also worked for McConnell.

One factor the representatives could have in their favor should they decide to run for Senate at any point? Money.

Because Congressional candidates raise money into federal accounts, unlike state candidates they can transfer their funds into a potential account to run for Senate.

Ward said the fundraising reports in the lead-up to any candidates actually announcing could tell a lot about who’s jockeying for a promotion.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) leaves a Senate Republican Conference luncheon after announcing he will step down as Senate Republican Leader on Wednesday, February 28, 2024. Allison Robbert
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) leaves a Senate Republican Conference luncheon after announcing he will step down as Senate Republican Leader on Wednesday, February 28, 2024. Allison Robbert

Among Kentucky’s Republican Congressional delegation, Comer raised the most last year, clearing $3.6 million into his direct account; he ended the year with $2.3 million on hand. Barr raised more than $1.8 million last year, cushioning his account to a total of $3.2 million at year’s end.

POLITICO recently reported that Barr “shut down rumors” he would abandon a bid to become House Financial Services Committee chairman for a run at the Senate.

Ward also predicted nobody would make an announcement about running before McConnell made his own about not running for re-election.

If and when McConnell does hang it up, Northern Kentucky Republican attorney and Massie ally Chris Wiest said he expects “a fight” for the seat. He said he’d be watching for how the far-reaching “McConnell Machine” reacts.

“Senator McConnell has a machine — or an apparatus, however you want to phrase it — that runs down into most all the county parties. I would be surprised if that machine breaks down. It’ll be interesting to see who the machine aligns itself behind. And my guess is that Senator McConnell will have a hand in picking his successor,” Wiest said.

Another dynamic to keep in mind is how the 2024 election plays out. Current GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump has had a rocky relationship with McConnell, even insulting his wife; Trump has also criticized Massie. Should Trump win the presidency this year, he could loom large over any contest to replace McConnell, Wiest said.

“It may make it such that Senator McConnell won’t be able to pick his own successor, at least not against the Trump endorsement,” Wiest said.

While McConnell is revered among most elected Republicans in the state, his popularity rating in the state has taken a hit in recent years. That’s in part because of many in the Trump wing.

Bobbie Coleman, chair of the Hardin County GOP, said she was “excited” by the McConnell news. Coleman led a successful effort to get the state party to pass a resolution claiming many people charged with crimes related to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol have “been wrongfully held.”

She wondered about the relationship between McConnell’s announcement and the news that his and Trump’s relationship could be mended. She also wondered who might be the next U.S. Senator.

I would like either Comer or another strong conservative,” Coleman said. “Massie wouldn’t be too bad.”

But for the few Republicans discussing a hypothetically open Senate seat, many aren’t even willing to entertain the notion.

One of McConnell’s oldest allies is Rep. Richard White, R-Morehead. White has been supportive of McConnell from his neck of Appalachian Eastern Kentucky since the senator’s very first run.

Like McConnell, White faced a health issue in office. He had to sit out much of the 2022 legislative session after collapsing and being hospitalized.

“The older we get, we get a little setback sometimes, as I have. I think he’s be able to bounce back from anything, as I have,” White said.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, in his third year in the College of Law at the University of Kentucky, in his Lexington apartment, January, 1967. McConnell shared a three-room apartment with Dan White, a candidate for a doctorate in English, on the second floor of a six-unit building at 337 South Mill St. The photo ran with a story on how their apartment building previously had a different front entrance when it was a house because it had faced a street that no longer existed. The story said McConnell was “chief cook” of the apartment he shared with White and that they met as eighth-graders at Manuel High School in Louisville. Both said an apartment in a more modern building might be easier to clean. “But then we don’t do much,” they admitted. “And this is the kind of home I’d like to own,” McConnell said. Their apartment was once the master bedroom for the house, which was built in 1816. The caption published with this photo said his desk is “like Linus’ blanket - it goes where he goes.” The books on the shelf next McConnell’s desk include “The Family and the Law,” “With Kennedy,” “The Making of the President, 1964,” Humor from Harper’s,” “Black’s Law Dictionary”, “Joy of Cooking,” The Anatomy of Liberty” and “Labor Relations and the Law.” McConnell, who was President of the student Bar Association, graduated with his law degree later that year. Published Sunday, Jan. 29, 1967 in the Sunday Herald-Leader. Herald-Leader file photo